90 days from today is Sun, 19 September 2021
23 March 2021
In conversation - A year of Covid-19. Sussex Police Federation Chair Daren Egan and Deputy Chair Donna Lonsdale reflect on the anniversary of lockdown
How would you look back on this past year?
Daren: It’s been really difficult year not just for policing, but for police officers themselves. In March last year the vast majority of the public went home and shut their doors, unfortunately police officers didn’t have that option. During those early months of lockdown there was fear and uncertainty, so of course police officers were worried about infection and taking the virus home to their families, but we asked them to go out and they did so without compliant. In the early days police officers didn’t have enough PPE to go around so they couldn’t put on masks until it would have been too late, but they still turned up to work and went out to keep people safe. Officers knew the personal risk but credit where it is due, they all still went out and did their job. Since then, there’s been both the easing of lockdown and another full shut down, but the higher risk of infection police officers are subjected to has not gone away. Crime levels have not fallen, in fact enforcing Covid legislation has increased their workloads, officers are still being asked to police demonstrations and go into people’s houses, still getting hands on violent criminals - and I am pleased to say they’ve risen to the challenge.
What do you think about people using Covid-19 against police officers as a weapon in assaults?
Donna: It completely changes your policing style because you’ve got a completely different weapon; instead of someone lashing out with their fists or kicking, someone can spit a lot further than they can punch, and when someone is coughing at you there was no clear information as to how far away you needed to be at the beginning to be safe. In the back of officers’ minds every time they dealt with someone they would be thinking, what if they cough at me? What if they’re going to spit at me? What am I taking back to my family? It’s very different to being punched. The mental impact that had on our members was horrific and I think the anxiety and mental health impact this has had on officers is still yet to be seen. As a Federation we are aware of this and we need to make sure that we’re there to support members through that because this will have a knock-on effect.
How betrayed did officers feel when it emerged that they would not receive any vaccination priority?
Daren: The sheer hypocrisy of this Government is astounding. They will not vaccinate Police officers but have no hesitation in demanding that police officers put themselves in the direct path of the virus and enforce the lockdown restrictions, by doing so they’ve put them at extra risk. Every indication from Government sources was that police officers were going to be in the second phase of the vaccination rollout - then at the last minute they were told they weren’t. The message they are sending is “Just carry on as normal, carry on accepting the risk, carry on catching criminals, carry on policing the demonstrations, and good luck. Hopefully you don’t get it and take it home to your family.” Yes - it is a betrayal.
Donna: Our members have suffered two kicks in the guts because not only have they had the issues with the vaccine but they’ve also had a pay freeze at the same time. Our members have gone out, they’ve done their job, they haven’t complained, they’ve got on with it against a backdrop of 67 legal changes and they have just cracked on, then as a thank you they have been told “By the way, we’re freezing your pay and we’re not going to protect you.”
The Police Federation of England and Wales have requested a one-off ‘thank you’ payment for officers for their work over the past year. Would this provide some recognition?
Donna: Yes, it probably would. For most officers, it’s not about money, it is about having that acknowledgement. Last week, we at the Federation gave response teams a water bottle. It was a really simple thing to do for Response Wellbeing Week and the feedback we have had is “Thank you for the acknowledgment and the recognition that we’re out there every day and we’re working really hard.”
Daren: The pay freeze from the Government to the public sector is divisive. There is no doubt the NHS have done a cracking job and they’ve put themselves at risk, so they absolutely deserve the pay rise they’re asking for. But so have police officers and they deserve it as well. We need to remember during the early months of the pandemic police officers did not have sufficient PPE or anything like the NHS had early on. During this time, I was policing the lockdown in Brighton. I remember working a late shift where we had to assist an ambulance crew with an aggressive patient. When I arrived there were already two police officers restraining him. It was only when we all got the hospital with him that we were informed he had run out of a Covid ward and suspected to be Covid-positive. The NHS staff were in full PPE - we were not. The police officers restraining him didn’t have adequate PPE to protect them but they had to get involved. Those officers had to get hands on. So how can any Government say that those officers didn’t go above and beyond what was expected. And let’s not forget, there are many more incidents like this up and down the country.
What was the Federation’s role in supporting officers over the year?
Daren: Since the early stages of the pandemic Sussex Police Federation has been at the forefront of trying to protect police officers, including calling for more PPE. At the beginning I recall an incident where the Federation challenged a senior officer who was bringing large groups of police officers from different stations together for a joint briefing, putting our members at risk. Our intervention stopped the gatherings - and it was the right thing to do. We have continually taken part in Force meetings, where necessary highlighting the difficulties our officers were facing, including the initial issue of limited PPE.
Donna: We made sure we were the voice for members in the Gold group force meetings because there were decisions that were being made detrimental to officers. For example when they closed down all the estates and said they didn’t want officers moving around from one estate to the other, this had a big impact because people like our firearms teams and our roads policing teams work across a number of stations but their base is often 20 to 30 miles away. This raised the question of where do they then go to have some lunch or to use the toilet? If you’re saying that they’re not allowed to go into their local stations, that then causes a bigger problem for our officers and their welfare. So we reached an agreement around that.
At the end of this unprecedented year, what would your message to officers be?
Donna: We would just like to thank our colleagues for their resilience. They haven’t complained and they’ve just got on with their job, and we really appreciate what an amazing bunch of officers we’ve got within our membership. It has been a very scary time but we are here and if officers are struggling, now or six months down the line, come and talk to us because we will support them as best we can.
Daren: Please remember we are still out there battling for you. At a national level the Federation are still fighting for police officers to be a priority for vaccinations - in every meeting we go to. It’s disgraceful that unvaccinated police officers are still being used to enforce the lockdown and the ever changing legislation, but they have still not been prioritised for any vaccine to protect them and their families. If you ask anybody to put themselves at a high risk of coming into direct physical contact with the virus then surely do the decent thing by offering them a vaccine to have any chance of not being infected. It’s disgraceful that they haven’t had it yet.