April 6, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at https://www.policeforum.org/coronavirus.


In today’s Daily COVID-19 Report, we present the latest information from two agencies in the United Kingdom– the Metropolitan Police Service of London, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

PERF is grateful to Deputy Commissioner Stephen House of the Met and PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne for giving us their time for an interview.

The UK currently has more than 33,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection, with nearly 3,000 fatalities, and the UK’s growth rate is still fairly high.


Deputy Commissioner Stephen House, Metropolitan Police Service, London

Chuck Wexler: Steve, I first met you in 2007. You were at the Met and were charged with thinking about how a pandemic could affecting policing, and you approached PERF about it, which led PERF to start investigating these issues. Our 2007 report has a chapter that details your planning at the Met for this type of threat.

Is any of that is still relevant today?

Deputy Commissioner House: Well, health isn’t different, and viruses aren’t different, but our ability to get past a pandemic by working remotely and flexibly is on a different planet. Technology has allowed us to be far better in responding to this and continue to provide a service in a way we couldn’t have done in 2007.

The streets of London are deserted.

The Met is 40,000 people, and London is approaching 9 million. We police by consent of the public, the vast majority of whom want to abide by the law. The government has brought in emergency legislation, and has a huge campaign of public education and information, so the public is in self-isolation. I’m looking out the window now at the Thames and London, which is normally absolutely packed with tourists, and there’s not a single person there. It’s completely deserted. The vast majority of people are staying at home, and if they can, they are working from home.

We’re finding our levels of crime are down significantly. Robbery and burglary are down 25 to 30 percent. Call volumes from the public are down a little bit, but not a great deal.

Nearly 20% of our officers are not at work.

Just under 20% of our officers are not at work, because they’re either sick or they are self-isolating because they have a family member sick or they’re in a vulnerable position, health-wise. But many of them are working from home remotely with laptops, etc.

Wexler: How many of that 20% have been diagnosed positive?

It’s not very many, so far. I’m interested in how police forces will know, because unless they’re getting tested, and our testing program is not that brilliant in the U.K. yet, then they won’t know whether they’ve actually got it or not. Obviously, some of the symptoms are very severe, and people have no doubt that they’ve got it. But a lot of people are self-isolating because they’re concerned they’ve got it. And that is our #1 message, that people should look out for themselves first and make sure they stay as healthy as possible.

Wexler: Does the employee make that decision to stay out, or do you have a process where they have to see a doctor?

Deputy Commissioner House: They make the decision for themselves. We trust our people, and if they think they’re ill and have got it, they have to self-isolate for 14 days, just like the rest of the population in the U.K. now. And if you self-isolate for 14 days but on the 14th day, your spouse gets sick, that’s another 14 days you have to self-isolate. We know our people will come back to work as soon as they safely can, because they don’t want to let people down.

We’re expecting a peak in mid- to late-April.

All of our scientific advisors from the government think it’s going to be about two to three weeks before the peak hits. About half of the U.K. casualties and deaths so far, I think it’s about 1,600 fatalities, half of those are in London, and the general sense is that London is taking the brunt first, because that’s where there are the most transport links, and the cosmopolitan nature of the place, density of housing and population. One of the challenges we’re facing is the increase in sudden deaths. The government has set up some temporary mortuaries, and has taken over a massive convention center and turned it into a makeshift hospital for emergency treatment of people with respiratory illnesses.

Our top command has two separate teams.

Wexler: On day to day basis, how do you, Commissioner Cressida Dick, and your command staff communicate?

Deputy Commissioner House: We’ve done what a lot of forces in the U.S. have done. We’ve divided into two command teams. Cressida heads one and I head the other. I work from Scotland Yard and she works from other parts of the Met with her team. And then she comes to Scotland Yard and I work elsewhere in the Met. She and I haven’t been in the same room physically for about three weeks. Half of the management boards are on my side and half are on hers, and we don’t mix the two. So if one team goes down with the virus, the other is able to cope to a degree, until the other is back on its feet again. We’re trying to divide the risk to reduce it.

Wexler: How are your dispatch centers doing?

Deputy Commissioner House: We have 3 dispatch centers with a couple of thousand staff members altogether, and their sickness levels are running about 20%, along with everyone else’s. We’ve massively increased the cleaning and disinfecting regime in those places, brought in extra contract cleaners. There are mixed command and control systems that we’re purchasing now, so people will be able to work from home and run the command and control from home addresses, but we haven’t got that at the moment; they have to come into the central buildings.

Our message to employees

Internally, our message is that we’ve got to keep London safe, and to do that, a number of us have to be at work. If you can work from home, that’s fine, but if you need to be at work, we want you at work. We want officers and staff to look after themselves as much as possible, but we expect them to do their normal duties. We want our officers to have confidence that they’ve got the right procedures to use protective equipment and protect their health. We have a network of specially equipped, multi-agency vehicles that work with a combined crew of police officers, medics, and fire and rescue. We’re working up to 32 of those around London. They attend all the COVID-suspected sudden deaths. They have upgraded training and upgraded PPE. This protects our regular patrol officers from having to get involved in COVID fatalities, and that has been very much welcomed by our officers.

We’ve also been using our internal intranet to keep our officers as up to date as possible on scientific advice and changes in practice and procedures. We’re very closely linked in with our police unions and associations, to make sure that they are involved in every meeting that we have that makes decisions, so they can understand and communicate those to their members as well. And the members can have confidence that their welfare needs are being looked after.

Cressida refers to this as a critical incident that’s going to last six months. It’s akin to a terrorist attack in its impact, but it’s not going to be an hour or a day or a week or a month. So we’re in this for the long haul.

We’re bringing back retired officers.

Wexler: You have reached out to retired officers.

Deputy Commissioner House: That’s a fairly recent initiative by the Commissioner to say to officers within the organization who are about to retire, if you can stay on, because we need you, and to those who have recently retired, you can come back. The issues that need to be resolved around that are about pensions, to make sure that retired officers who come back aren’t financially penalized or hurt in their tax situation. So that’s being clarified as we speak with the U.K. government, who are very keen to help us. I’ve had quite a few calls and texts from retired colleagues saying they want to come back. People are very keen to help. This has also happened in our National Health Service.

I’m concerned about how long this will continue.

My other concern is about the length of this pandemic. How long is this going to last? Is this going to be a six-month lockdown where we’re saying to the general public, “Unless you absolutely have to come to work as a key worker, you need to stay home. You can only leave your house or apartment once a day for exercise, you can’t visit family members who live elsewhere.”

Six months is a long time to ask people to do that, through a hot summer in London. We’re afraid that the public may gradually lose patience.


Chief Constable Simon Byrne, Police Service of Northern Ireland

Chuck Wexler: How are you doing? Are you looking at how other countries have been responding to COVID?

Chief Constable Byrne: Yes, we’re looking around the world for other agencies’ practices and lessons learned. I think it’s important to keep an open mind about this, because everything is so fast-paced. I’ve been proud at how our organization has stood up and responded. Morale is strong, and there’s a real sense of collaboration, team effort, and people wanting to go the extra mile to support the Health Service and to be that bridge into the wider community.

We have a long history here of dealing with sustained periods of public disorder, and we’ve been able to apply some of that thinking and learning to this. We have pretty robust 24/7 command and control arrangements. We have on-hand expert advice, so if officers need tactical advice on how to deal with a COVID incident, they’ve got it.

We have “COVID cars” equipped to handle potentially infected persons on the streets.

In terms of our innovations, for a couple of weeks now we’ve been running what we call “COVID Cars” – vehicles fully equipped with PPE and people who have been trained to deal with people who present symptoms of COVID. They operate in each geographic district and are staffed around the clock. So for example, if we encounter a person with extreme mental health behaviors who’s also coughing and saying he has a fever, rather than send an unprepared local patrol officer to handle the situation, we send this specialist team, who can be dressed from head to toe in PPE to deal with that person.

Similarly, if we have to make an arrest, we have a special floor in our custody suites where there is specialist treatment for that prisoner, to minimize the risk of disease transfer.

I think we’re still in the foothills of fighting this disease. We recently got some new regulations prohibiting more than 2 people from being outside together, unless you’re part of the same family group. Economic life here has more or less come to a grinding halt, and equally the movements of people by public transport, planes, and on the roads.

A 4-Step model for obtaining compliance

Wexler: How are you going about getting people to comply?

Chief Constable Byrne: We’ve done a lot of effort with internal briefings for frontline people who are dealing with people on the streets. We’re using a four-step UK model:

Engage—talk to people you see on the street;

Explain why you are talking to them, why you are there;

Encourage them, if appropriate, to go home; and ultimately, if there is really strong resistance and if you have the right reasons, we can

Enforce with a penalty notice that carries a 60-pound fine.

We are still operating with a severe terrorist threat, almost the highest level of imminent threat, to target police officers in particular, by a small number of dissident Republican terrorists. That is still an active threat that has to be borne in mind by our policing staff.

Making changes on the fly

That said, we’ve gone to a sort of collapsing response to this, moving from a normal operating posture, normal shift patterns, and normal priorities to a different stance. So as of today, for example, we’ve moved the organization onto 12-hour shifts, which creates larger numbers of people to put into public space, so they can reassure the public and be seen, and create that sense of calmness. We foresee continuing that through the peak of the epidemic. It’s a way of “getting boots on the ground.”

We’re also making business changes in almost real time that might otherwise take months or years to do. We just rolled out 1,200 laptops to key workers to enable them to work from home or remotely. That’s something that hadn’t been embraced here until now, but it’s happened in a matter of days.

At the Training College, we’ve made a decision to continue recruitment and induction of new officers, because we need to keep up that chain of officers coming in for when we’re on the other side of this. But we’ve reduced a lot of other training, to create more physical space at the college for social distancing. And we’re doing remote training; I was at a Training College session this morning, and there was a Zoom session running with a whole cohort of new recruits getting their welcome and induction.

Wexler: How are calls for service and crime?

Chief Constable Simon Byrne: Crime is down a third; arrests are down two-thirds; and calls down about one-quarter compared to normal levels. The only thing at the moment we’re seeing rising is domestic abuse, which is up by a fifth, which was anticipated.

A critical moment for Northern Ireland

Wexler: Do you think COVID might have any impact on efforts at reconciliation? Are you seeing any change in the mood of Northern Ireland in terms of people getting along better?

Chief Constable Simon Byrne: I think we are at the moment, to be honest. What we’re seeing is that this gives us an opportunity, or indeed a need, to get into communities where sometimes people have been marginalized or where it would otherwise be hard to reach them.

And the feedback we’re getting at the moment is that we’re doing a good job; that we’ve got the tone right. We’re not being seen as over-zealous, but we’re out there, being seen and giving reassurance.

Who knows what the future holds, and whether we’ll be able to bank that dividend when we’re on the other side of this.

But you’ve got to be optimistic that maybe people are being given the chance to see policing here in a different light. They’re seeing that we are part of the community, we listen to people’s concerns, and – crucially at a time like this – we’re able to take action and protect the public.


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.

Police Executive Research Forum
1120 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 930
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 466-7820