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Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove: Police response to the Coronavirus

Jonathan Jackson, course leader for our BSc (Hons) Professional Policing course, discusses the global police response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Jonathan Jackson
Teaching Fellow in Criminology

Police Coronavirus 1200x450: Police sirens

Whilst enjoying a quiet whisky in a local pub a few weeks ago, I overheard a discussion taking place with a group of fellow drinkers on another table. The enjoyment of this casual glass of single malt was before the first cases of the now infamous Coronavirus had hit the shores of Britain. The standing comment overheard from the eavesdropped conversation was that of the Chinese state response and how many felt that “Wouldn’t you want to be China for a day?”

The chat continued by seemingly (and with some apparent envy), comparing the totalitarian system of the Chinese government with that of the British democracy and that the control mechanisms that the red giant could bring to bear on its own people, is what was required to defeat the virus and halt its spread. The response to this statement could simply be, ‘which day would you want to be China?’ Would they desire the China at the beginning of virus outbreak, when the state security apparatus closed in on the doctors who attempted to identify and warn officials about the risk posed? The suppression of all forms of conventional and digital media platforms to prevent the secret from getting out?

It has to be said that yes, the ability to build hospitals in ten days or lock down whole cities within hours would help to curb the spread of the virus but these are measures which are universally applied even in times of normality rather than that of emergency. The Chinese system defends public control through a vast array of security systems including the intelligence services, police and conventional military forces. Basic freedoms that are enjoyed by many in the West are sacrificed for the greater collective and the ability to challenge or question the state will see its victims swallowed up into a vast array of ‘correctional’ facilities. 

However much of this is far from surprising, that a government which prides itself on ensuring compliance from its people can very quickly enact mechanisms to protect itself from the invisible virus enemy.

“That wouldn’t happen here”

The conversation between our drinking group moved on quickly to that of another defining statement which was “Don’t worry, that couldn’t happen here.” It is true that the model of policing in Britain does vary intensely from that of China. Consent is central to everything that Robert Peel first envisaged in 1829 and bar some divergences from this ideal, British policing has stayed true to this principle. Communities work together with the police to tackle crime and disorder and law enforcement themselves allows far greater public scrutiny, something only dreamed of amongst many in Hong Kong. 

But the statement still stands as to whether such control measures could be enacted here. It is true that having experienced years of austerity, British policing lacks the numbers and resources to impose control measures similar to those which have been seen in other states within Western Europe. Officers are already feeling the strain and in seems harder to apply control and restraint on suspects from a distance. Without huge levels of reserve forces to draw upon, the impacts of illness on force staff levels will no doubt begin to reduce the ability to carry out this level of draconian enforcement. 

However, it is wrong to assume that these powers are not available to British policing. The ‘Coronavirus’ Act may grant powers of control which are unseen and untested on our shores. It may be possible for officers to carry out similar actions to those of their Chinese counterparts but it would seem unlikely that officers themselves would want to implement them. Power can lead so often to abuse and not recognising that there will be an end point to the pandemic, would leave a dangerous legacy which many within policing would want to avoid. Forces appear at this stage to accept an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ approach, in which toughness can be made available to them but many  continue to utilise their rights of discretion and consent rather than blanket measures which have been enacted in other European states. 

What is important to recognise is that the situation faced by the nation is unlike anything that we have dealt with before. The fear of a second wave of the virus could once again bring economies to a halt and force the Prime minster to loosen the gloves so that greater restrictions are placed on the British public to prevent further infection.