Murder inquiries to be halted if coronavirus hits police numbers | World news

Police investigations into some homicides would be halted and 999 response times extended under contingency plans to help forces cope with a severe coronavirus outbreak, the Guardian has learned.

As the number of confirmed UK cases reached 51, the government warned that up to a fifth of the workforce could be off sick during the peak of a potential epidemic. A raft of measures would be introduced if the virus moved beyond the currently designated “contain phase,” a 28-page action plan warned.

On Tuesday evening, tests on thousands of patients in hospital intensive care units were ordered by NHS England amid concerns that the virus could be spreading undetected among people with respiratory problems.

Twelve more people across England tested positive for coronavirus – the second highest single-day increase in cases to date – with all thought to have contracted it abroad. Eight had recently travelled from Italy, while the others came from Germany, Singapore, Japan and Iran.

Health officials in the Canary Islands also reported the first case of a British national testing positive at a quarantined hotel in Tenerife. In other developments:

  • A seventh person with coronavirus died in the Seattle area of the US, while the global death toll exceeded 3,100 with more than 90,000 people infected in 73 countries and territories.

  • UK officials revealed plans for new legislation that could force children and teachers to transfer to alternative schools if their own is shut down.

  • If NHS staff numbers are affected, some non-urgent care may be delayed and retired healthcare professionals brought back on duty, the government said.

  • Unite, the union, warned that factories could shut down or cut working hours because of shortages of parts from China if the coronavirus crisis worsens.

Johnson gave a rare Downing Street press conference to explain the government’s “battle plan” on Tuesday, including potential future advise to elderly people not to attend social gatherings. He was flanked by scientific experts, whom Downing Street’s research has suggested are most trusted by the public to carry crucial health messages.


Among plans drawn up to keep hospitals, schools and other public services running, the action plan warned: “With a significant loss of officers and staff, the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order.”

Meetings of senior police officers and government officials have been hammering out options to deal with severe disruption, including rationing services to respond only to serious 999 emergency calls only such as life threatening-crimes in action, domestic violence, sexual violence and homicides.

One senior source said inquiries in non time-critical homicide investigations could be postponed as long as there was no increase in threat or risk. “We could stop homicide investigations, stop everything that is not time critical. Everything goes on the protection of life and property,” they said.

Other steps taken by police could include increasing response times to crimes such as burglaries, as there is no legally set time to attend; postponing some proactive work, such as against gangs and serious organised crime with those officers being diverted to frontline response; halting work on past crimes such as sexual abuse; and pulling officers out of neighbourhood policing – seen as vital to building trust and intelligence – so they are free to respond to serious 999 emergencies.

Police chiefs could choose to suspend the 101 non-emergency police number to discourage the reporting of low-level crimes, though there would be concerns about an increase in 999 calls.

The source added that forces are suffering from years of cuts and will face hard choices if the severest effects of coronavirus are realised: “The public can’t expect as good a service in a worst-case scenario. They need to be reasonable about what a police force with 20% of staff missing because of illness, and still depleted from austerity, can do.”

The action plan said that the army is on standby to help. Soldiers with guns could guard parliament and Buckingham Palace, with armed police moved onto other duties, it is understood.

In a sign of the scale of strain on Britain’s fabric, police have been told by planners to limit demands on the army – because the military may be filling in for firefighters or even helping to bury the dead.

Military help would come under plans originally devised for terrorist emergencies when the UK goes onto attack-imminent alerts, such as after the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.

The government is planning to pass legislation creating powers it can use if the outbreak becomes more serious and medical experts deem that “social distancing” is necessary to control its spread.

These are expected to include: the power to detain people at the border for the purposes of carrying out medical checks; allowing more extensive use of court hearings by video-link, as currently already happens in certain cases; and enabling the government to shut down large-scale public events – though the government believes many would be cancelled voluntarily.

The prime minister played down the risks of widespread school shutdowns, saying: “We don’t think schools should be closing in principle. If possible they should stay open but school authorities should follow the advice of Public Health England.”

But the government wants to be prepared to tackle potential teacher shortages in individual schools or areas. Legislation is expected to permit the relaxing of constraints on class sizes and the sending of pupils and teachers to other schools if theirs are closed or demand is created by staff being off sick.

Officials say new powers would not be used at this stage of the outbreak but could be triggered either if the World Health Organization declares that the risks have escalated or if a group of countries, including the UK, makes a coordinated decision that the virus has entered a new phase.

The powers would be strictly temporary, either through the inclusion of a sunset clause or by allowing the legislation to lapse, once the chief medical officer and chief scientific officer declare that the disease is no longer an epidemic.

Detailed plans the government put in place to prepare for a potential no-deal Brexit last year had helped departments to understand the risks of disruption, the spokesman claimed.

“We do have well developed plans in relation to supply chains. There are specific plans in place in relation to medical stockpiles in particular, and that work has already taken place.It’s certainly the case that we have been able to learn from the process of making preparations for no deal.”

More details of a planned large-scale public information campaign will emerge later this week. It is expected include a robust message about the risks of lax hygiene.

After Johnson was criticised by Labour for failing to take a personal role in the coronavirus crisis in its early days, he has carried out visits to hospitals, and is expected to make more statements in the coming days.

“You can expect us to be regularly updating the public on the steps we can take. You have seen the prime minister on a number of occasions in recent days and I would expect that to continue,” he added.

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