Overcoming the coronavirus is going to be a very long haul.
Belatedly, we head into a new lock-down because the statistics are bad everywhere. But here in Yorkshire and Humberside they are among the most alarming in the country. This would not be good news at any time but as we come to the coldest months of the year – when all respiratory diseases are more vigorous – it is even more serious. We have to get the R rate – the rate at which the infection is spreading from an infected person to others – below 1 or the NHS will be overwhelmed.
When we look across the world, a real difference is developing between the Far East and Europe. In the Far East they were faster to see the need for total, national lock-downs and for suppression to be sustained. They were much stricter in enforcing the rules. And they sustained a consistent message throughout. They are now on the way to something closer to ‘normality’, though remaining cautious and watchful. As I write this, for instance, in Taiwan it is now their 200th day without a new case of coronavirus and all businesses are operating. That seems a long way from anything in Europe, including the UK.
In England, coming in and out of restrictions seemed reactive – a whack-a-mole feel – rather than strategic. Now we are buying time – buying time to suppress the spread of the infection and get us closer to the moment when a vaccine becomes available, which is not likely to be this calendar year.
All of which continues to raise issues for policing as people become weary and fed up. I don’t doubt that the vast majority will continue to observe the restrictions. But this may be more out of respect for the law than confidence that the authorities know what they are doing. And that is not the best place to be. It is easier for the police to enforce the law when the law, and what the law seeks to prevent or achieve, makes sense in terms of an overall plan. We need confidence that what is now proposed will indeed get us to that better place.
Supporting witnesses during Covid-19
Coronavirus is impacting on every aspect of life – including the working of the criminal justice system. I chair the Local Criminal Justice Board and among our many current concerns is that of the witness support scheme.
If a witness fails to show at court, a trial can easily collapse. Even in normal times witnesses can find the experience daunting, and for many reasons:
- The court buildings are likely to be unfamiliar
- Some witnesses have to attend very difficult trials – such as child sexual abuse (CSE), murder or drugs cases
- In some instances they may be open to intimidation
- They may find giving evidence distressing – as when a CSE victim appears as a witness in another CSE trial, where terrible incidents in the past have to be re-visited
- We can now add to that anxieties around coronavirus
The Witness Service is designed to help witnesses overcome their lack of knowledge of the court system and their anxieties. It’s an opt-in service, provided in South Yorkshire by Citizens Advice, giving free, practical help, emotional support and information, so that witnesses are in the best place to give their evidence.
Many of those involved in witness support are volunteers – 2,700 across the country. They contact the witness before the trial and, if they want it, show them the court. They will keep the witness up to date on timings and progress and meet them on the day and after the trial.
But Covid-19 has mean the service has had to do many things differently. Much of the support is now on-line or on the phone. In addition, many of the volunteers are older people, and they have had to think carefully about whether they can do face to face work.
Witnesses can fall away and the coronavirus is not helping. It has taken a while for the courts to become Covid secure and some trial dates have been put back. (There was backlog even before the pandemic.) But we know that the longer witnesses are kept waiting for a trial to start, the greater the chance that they will give up. Even if they do turn up, the longer they have waited, the more they may struggle to remember what happened – and then their evidence looks less reliable. And some witnesses now worry that they will be infected by coming to court.
So we owe the Witness Service a debt of gratitude for the support they give and the way they have responded in this very trying time of the pandemic.
Each year I have to set a budget for the police force and determine how much I should ask council tax payers to contribute towards it – this is for the year beginning in April 2021. To help me do that, I seek the views of the South Yorkshire public on policing – where they think the priorities should be – and how much they are prepared to pay for the service.
In a normal year (if you remember those days) my two engagement officers and I would be out and about meeting many people in town and village centres and in community meetings. But that is more difficult this year. So I am launching an on-line survey to supplement the much reduced direct contact I will be able to have with people to help me form judgements as we approach budget-making time. I would be most grateful if you could take minute or two to complete it.
The tragic irony of it …
I watched with disbelief the way Philadelphia police responded to a man with mental health issues coming towards them with a knife. I would like to think that most British police officers would realise that this man was quite possibly not well and would certainly not think it appropriate to discharge multiple rounds into him. The cruel irony, of course, was that this all took place in Philadelphia – in Greek: adelphos (brother), philia (love) – the city of brotherly love.
I hope you are staying safe and well.