Sir Steve House, Deputy Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about the new strain of the Coronavirus that’s hitting the UK, new restrictions implemented by the British government, and when his officers might be vaccinated.

Chuck Wexler: What does the lockdown mean for the London Metropolitan Police?

Deputy Commissioner House: We’re seeing a real difference in this second wave, compared to what we saw in the first wave.  We’re seeing a far more easily communicated virus this time. It’s mutated into a different form, and it’s being transmitted much more easily than in the first wave.

In the first wave, we barely got above 10% absence of officers and staff, and that included normal sickness. That means that normal sickness plus COVID plus people who had to self-isolate because they’d been in contact only got to 10% during the first phase.

We are now at 15%, and some parts of the organization are over 20%.  I could see it getting up toward 30% this time, because we probably have another 4-5 weeks before we reach a peak in London. Within the Met, what we’re seeing is far more worrying than the first wave.

Fortunately, we have seen only a couple fatalities, and these have been members of our organization who had fairly severe underlying health issues. We haven’t experienced the levels seen in the New York City Police Department.

Wexler: How is this new strain of the virus different?

Deputy Commissioner House: It needs less of a viral load to infect somebody. Previously, I think the view was that you had to inhale moisture droplets yourself, or get them on your hands and touch your eyes or mouth. It seems now to be far more easily communicated through the air. And we’re seeing levels in the general population in London that we never saw in the first wave.

Wexler: What is it like in England right now?

Deputy Commissioner House: Westminster has not changed that much, as I look out my window. It’s very quiet compared to normal. There are very few people around and not much traffic on the roads.

Outer London is a bit busier. Not many people live in Westminster, but where people live, it’s busier. People still have to leave the house to get food and do essential shopping. They can still go out for exercise. But the government is increasingly saying to people, “You need to stay at home.” And, very clearly, if you can work from home, you must work from home and not come into work.

Wexler: Has your strategy changed about enforcing restrictions?

Deputy Commissioner House: We use the same process we always have, which is to engage, explain, educate, and, if necessary, to enforce.

Having said that, because things are much more serious this time around, we have seen an increase in our enforcement. We are issuing far more tickets to people, particularly tickets to organizers of events. The government has authorized us to hand out tickets that will eventually result in a 10,000-pound fine for organizers of events. So if you organize a birthday party, invite 20 people, and they turn up, then you’ll get hit with a 10,000-pound fine.

Wexler: And have you issued those fines?

Deputy Commissioner House: Oh yes. We’ve issued quite a few of those now. We’ve issued about 2,500 tickets in general, which are mainly much lower value tickets to people who are just breaching it individually.

Let’s say we get called to a restaurant and there’s a group of people in there celebrating somebody’s birthday. We’ll issue a 10,000-pound ticket to the licensee of the restaurant, and everybody who’s there will get a ticket for up to 100 pounds.

Wexler: How is the UK’s vaccination program going?

Deputy Commissioner House: The vaccination program started a couple weeks ago. Initially it was relatively slow, because the vaccine had to be stored at a very low sub-zero temperature, so it’s quite difficult to handle and could only be issued from a few places with very powerful refrigeration devices.

Now the second vaccine has been made available, which can be stored in normal fridges. It’s now starting to be rolled out to our local health centers. So we’re starting to see numbers go up. About 1.5 million people have been vaccinated so far, with the priority being the elderly. People over 70 are the number one priority. National Health Service (NHS) staff and home care staff are second priority. And the third priority are those with severe underlying health issues. So they’re trying to protect the most vulnerable people.

Predictions vary about when there will be a very high level of vaccination. I’m in my early 60s, and I’ve been told I’ll probably get a vaccination around late May or early June. So we expect it to be 4-5 months before the vaccination process is completed, if not 6 months.

Wexler: Should police be given a higher priority? In the U.S., first responders are generally just below the health care providers.

Deputy Commissioner House: The first thing I would say is that I’m not a first responder. I work in an office, so I wouldn’t expect to be prioritized.

The Commissioner has been very clear that we believe the police should be prioritized. Operational officers should be prioritized right behind NHS workers. The government is looking at that. Our police unions have been very vocal about it, and I support what they say. I think it’s frankly disappointing that police officers are not going to be prioritized yet. I hope the government will change their minds on it. Our officers are going out and dealing with the unknown. They’re putting themselves in danger over this.

There’s also a very real danger of so many police officers catching the virus that we won’t be able to offer all the operational response that we need to offer to the public. So it’s putting emergency service at risk. I think it is time for the government to prioritize vaccinations for police officers.

Wexler: What’s the feeling within the Met? How do you motivate people in this environment?

Deputy Commissioner House: I think there is a view, in general, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that the vaccination program will work and will eventually provide some security against the virus.

I would say the organization is tired and people are weary. But I don’t need to spend time motivating officers, because they’re very self-motivated and up for it. Yesterday the Commissioner and I spent two hours online with the recipients of all our excellence awards for last year. The professionalism, dedication, and enthusiasm of officers are quite amazing. So we’re not worried about that. The morale in the organization and the determination to keep going is very strong. But I think officers are also quite weary.

Even the Prime Minister saying that we’re going to now prioritize vaccination of police officers because of the job that they do would be a massive bonus to police officers, because they would feel recognized. They want some recognition, I think.

That’s not to say all politicians aren’t recognizing police officers. The minister we report to, the Home Secretary, is very positive and very supportive. But we need to see general government support for this. And we need to see people recognizing that police officers are putting themselves at risk here, and the whole service is beginning to creak as a result of the vacancies we now have.

Wexler: Are there any lessons you’ve learned that would be relevant for American police chiefs?

Deputy Commissioner House: I think there’s a leadership issue here we all have to pay attention to, which is that you can’t walk by somebody who’s not complying. If they’re not wearing a mask when they should be wearing a mask, or they are not socially distancing, then that needs to be addressed. And we need to watch our own behavior as well, to make sure that we are setting the right example for people so they know what’s expected of them. That includes a balance of working from home and being present in the workplace when that’s the appropriate thing to do.

So I think there’s a lot around personal responsibility, to try and keep yourself healthy and safe, and do the same with and for colleagues. And also think about how we can maintain operational staff while being practical. They are going to have to come into close contact with members of the public who they don’t know and may not be COVID-safe, and officers have to make difficult decisions.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.