‘If not now, when?’
This is what a government minister said about the decision to lift all the coronavirus restrictions from Monday. He was implying that the answer to that question was obvious: there was no better time, or at least no time when the situation might be less of a risk.
But, of course, this is not true. There could have been a different answer to the question. The restrictions could have been lifted when the number of people vaccinated was at a higher percentage of the population than it is currently – nearer to what is called ‘herd immunity’. This is when the minority who have no immunity from the disease – they have neither had coronavirus nor been vaccinated – is so small that their becoming infected is not going to cause a further wave of illness with all the pressure that brings on the health service. That would be a decision based on the data not the date.
It is not the only thing being said nationally that might be thought unwise. The same applies to saying that the road map is ‘irreversible’. Israel, which has vaccinated far more people than any other country and had lifted restrictions, has now had to reimpose them because of a new strain of virus and a new wave of infections.
As a result of our relaxing restrictions before we have that ‘herd immunity’ there will be further rises in infections, hospital admissions and deaths – as the government itself has said. Events like Tramlines in Sheffield seem almost certain to spread infection. All this will have implications for policing – in two respects.
First, the unlocking of the night-time economy will put huge pressure on officers. There are potentially big gatherings and a lot of drunkenness as pubs open fully and nightclubs re-open. Experience suggests there will be rowdiness, aggression and assaults. A lot of police will have to be deployed. But many of these officers will be relatively inexperienced in dealing with the night-time economy. Those who have been recruited recently have had a year or so in which there has been little happening at night. Particular skills are needed to manage these situations as people leave venues, and that will take a year or two to build. In the meantime, further experienced officers will be retiring.
But second, police officers and their families are not granted immunity from coronavirus by virtue of their profession. If there is a big rise in infections – which is now being predicted – the combination of increased demand and potentially more officers having to self-isolate will stretch remaining resources. And after a year of managing the emergency restrictions, there are a lot of very tired officers.
The decisions to impose restrictions – social distancing, masks, no gatherings – were hard to make. The decision to relax those restrictions was no easier. But it has to remain an open question whether an even tougher decision to re-impose some measures is yet to come. Nothing can be ‘irreversible’.
The Baader Meinhof Effect
We are all likely to suffer from it. I first recognised it in myself when I became Police and Crime Commissioner. After years of living without noticing police officers or police vehicles, I began to see them everywhere and started to think that they must be out and about more. But it was all to do with my job. It raised my awareness of the police and created the illusion that there were more of them than before. But it wasn’t that there were more in actuality, just that I noticed them more. It was a case of the Baader Meinhof Effect, also known as frequency illusion, when increased awareness of something creates the illusion that it is appearing or occurring more often.
It happens all the time with crime. If a crime is committed, especially some act of serious violence, this generates a lot of media attention – TV, radio, newspapers, social media. It can create the illusion that murders or stabbings are on the increase – and that is very hard to counter. The fact may be that such incidents are decreasing, but if an incident is intensively reported it perpetuates the illusion that something is getting worse.
I am beginning to think that dog theft is a case of frequency illusion. In the first few months of this year, stories began to appear in the national media about dog thefts during the period of the lock-downs. It was said that with more people wanting dogs to take for walks, the price of canines had gone up and kidnapped pets became a lucrative source of income for criminals – which may be true. A few people began to speak about their stolen pet and the distress it caused. Rather more spoke about near misses as people tried to snatch them, or so they thought. Others said someone they met had told them about people who had lost a dog. One excitable PCC started a national campaign and one of our local MPs said the police should have a dog theft lead (no pun intended, I think) in South Yorkshire.
There are always going to be some thefts of dogs, but looking back over last year there is no evidence in our county that numbers had gone up dramatically if at all. And as time has gone by and more things are beginning to happen for the media to report on, stories about dog thieving have started to die away. It was a case of frequency illusion.
So it’s just as well we didn’t set on a dog theft lead. They would have little to do for most of the week.
And perhaps, perhaps, something similar happened when we reacted to the racist tweets that were directed at those England players who missed penalties in the Euro 2020 cup final a week or so ago. Yes, they were utterly abhorrent. But there were not as many as we might have thought given the prominence of the stories in the media. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate has found 105 Instagram accounts; but 59 were from outside the country and only five were definitely from within the UK.
But the number of stories they generated across all the media was immense. This was no doubt what the perpetrators wanted – to make us think there were large numbers of people who thought this way and so to stir up division and community tensions.
But against that we should set what happened in Withington, Manchester, Marcus Rashford’s home town. The mural of him which was defaced with racist graffiti was restored within a day or two and festooned with messages of support and real affection from both local people and others who travelled from further away. That surely was the story that should be uppermost in our consciousness.
And that is progress. I have lived long enough to remember the overt racism of British society in the 1960s. This is not where the vast majority of people are today. And it’s important for the police to understand that, because if they are to tackle racist hate crimes with proper seriousness and urgency, they need to know that this is what the public want.
As we always say, we police by consent.