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Police have to walk a fine line in dealing with coronavirus crisis

PUBLISHED: 05:30 03 April 2020 | UPDATED: 07:24 03 April 2020

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt is hoping to be out of self isolation at the start of next week. Picture; PAUL GEATER

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt is hoping to be out of self isolation at the start of next week. Picture; PAUL GEATER

Archant

We are certainly living through extraordinary times.

The impact of the coronavirus is both all-encompassing and highly personal at the same time and this has been coming through in the hundreds of letters and e-mails I’ve received from constituents over the past few weeks.

While clear themes have emerged about residents’ concerns, no two enquiries have been entirely the same. Everyone is affected but the ways it impacts our lives, families and businesses is always highly personal too.

I am endeavouring to respond to everyone who has written in and assist them in any way I can. I returned to Ipswich last Friday but since Sunday evening I have been self-isolating as a result of coming down with some of the symptoms of the coronavirus myself.

These symptoms are only moderate and though very grateful for all the messages I’ve received wishing me well it all sounds a bit more dramatic than it is, and I’m confident that this time next week, touch wood, I should be right as rain.

A number of constituents have been in contact with me sharing concerns and examples of the social distancing guidelines not being followed in certain parts of town. Though the vast majority of people in the Town have been closely following the social distancing guidance it does seem that there have been a small number of individuals who haven’t followed the guidance and have continued to congregate in areas around the town, flouting the guidance which is in place to keep all of us safe.

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Last weekend I contacted Suffolk Constabulary to share both my concerns and the concerns of the constituents who has contacted me and I was glad to see that earlier this week the police were carrying out patrols across town in the very areas that were highlighted in the e-mails I received from constituents.

I strongly believe that the police have the backing of the overwhelming majority of my constituents to take enforcement action where necessary to enforce the social distancing guidance that is there is keep safe. The social distancing guidance is there for us to all to follow and there should be no exceptions.

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That being said, the police have the unenviable responsibility of acting decisively to protect public health in cases such as these while also avoiding heavy-handedness in others. This is a difficult balancing act to keep and I am sure that deciding when to check people’s shopping or their travel habits was not what the vast majority of officers signed up for.

We have already seen some cases around the country where firm enforcement of the guidance has slipped into over-zealousness. For example in Derbyshire, the police have been criticised for recording hikers in the Peak District with a drone and putting them to shame by posting the footage on social media.

While I am sympathetic with the police whose intention was undoubtedly to keep people safe, the manner in which they enforced the guidance in this case does seem fairly sinister.

This Big Brother form of policing was also employed with Stephen Kinnock, the MP for Aberavon in South Wales, after he tweeted about visiting his father, Neil Kinnock, for his 78th birthday. He was warned by the police that his visit was unessential and not in compliance with the guidance. And once again, the police elected to do this publicly on Twitter. It turned out that the Kinnocks had kept their distance from one another, and Stephen had only visited for a short period of time to say ‘happy birthday’ and drop off some essential supplies for his elderly parents.

There is no doubt that there is a difficult line for the police to tread in these exceptional times but it’s important to get it right. Police resources are already stretched and the impact of coronavirus will stretch them even further. With these limited resources, the public will be watching closely how police leadership prioritises their forces’ time and use their exceptional new powers.

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Fortunately, it certainly seems that the leadership of Suffolk Constabulary are acutely aware of the importance of striking the right balance and having seen their strategy for coping with the challenges presented by the coronavirus and having spoken to both the Chief Constable and Police and Crime Commissioner I have every confidence in their judgement and the judgement of our officers during this challenging period.

We must come out of this outbreak with an even stronger confidence in our society and its institutions than before, and this includes the police.

Neil Basu, the UK’s leading counter terrorism officer wrote earlier this week that “everyone in policing is acutely aware that how we police this pandemic will be remembered for many years to come.”

He’s absolutely right and we must ensure our brave officers are remembered for how they enforced clear breaches of public health and maintained order during this most difficult time. It’s only with confidence in our liberty and police secure that we will be able to focus on rebuilding from this crisis and of course building up our police force up for the future.


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