This week marks a year since the UK was placed in full lockdown. It was the start of a time full of loss, tragedy and fear for many and a year where we all had to make continuous sacrifices and changes to our lives as we adapted to a new way of living.
For officers and staff at Leicestershire Police, the past year has also brought many challenges - both professionally and personally - as they have continued to work throughout a global pandemic, adapting to new laws, adjusting to new protective clothing and equipment and working in environments and circumstances which have never been experienced before – all while continuing to fight crime and protect our communities.
This week, as we reflect on the past year, some of our officers and staff will be sharing their own stories in their own words about what the past 12 months has meant for them.
Today we start with Chief Constable Simon Cole.
When lockdown came in it confirmed more widely what had been a gathering storm professionally for some while. I chair the Local Resilience Forum for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland and we had been watching the clouds gather, all the time checking our contingency plans and trying to ensure that we were all as ready as we could be and coordinated across agencies. It was clear that the health service would be needing support. I sat in demanding meetings about epidemiology and mortuary capacity. When the Director of Public Health for Leicestershire and Rutland told me on 6 March that we had our first case, it became all too real. I then had an on call incident in the middle of the night where the deceased appeared to have just travelled back from China; discussing PPE and safe ways of working in the wee small hours brought it all home to me – the storm had broken. It still hasn’t finished.
Away from work I think it’s natural to think about your family and friends. Can I see Mum? How will my sister, not long clear of leukaemia after a three year battle, do? My wife and both children all work or study in schools and at university; what does it mean for them with GCSEs, and ‘time of your life’ university partying (should that say studying?)? I have friends who run their own businesses, a lettings agent, a driving instructor, how do they work? What is a furlough? Will that Frank Turner gig go ahead? (It didn’t). What will happen to the fixtures lined up for the girls’ team that I coach rugby to every week? (They were all scrapped). Will the Tigers avoid relegation and will I get to see it if they do (Only just, and only on the telly!)?
Bluntly the summer was tough going for all of the public services with the city and parts of Leicestershire announced as a protected area for public health reasons. I am struck as I write this that the level of illness then - 135 cases per 100,000 citizens - is one that pretty much everywhere has massively exceeded as the year has progressed. Professionally we found ourselves in the eye of the storm, with the rest of the country heading out of the lockdown and the pubs opening; we had both a lockdown, and the pubs opening in some parts of the Force at the same time!
The Force response was committed and magnificent. Colleagues found themselves being pursued by TV crews as they set out on patrol from Spinney Hill with PPE on. I will never forget being sat in the nick there eating curry, produced by one of our excellent PCSOs, with colleagues watching themselves on TV patrolling streets empty other than reporters, and laughing at the somewhat unflattering low angle action shots of their backsides being splashed all over national news! Meanwhile I found myself in meetings about COVID with, amongst many, the PM, Home Secretary, Health Secretary, MPs, PCC, local councillors, as well as with the operational parts of lots of partner agencies, and the brilliant voluntary sector. It was full on. I also found myself briefing other Forces and partners elsewhere about some of the challenges, and what we had learnt. That included some foreign interest as other nations have wrestled with COVID too.
At home lone bike rides, both actual bike rides on real roads and in the garage on the turbo trainer on virtual roads, became interspersed with DIY circuits in the garden with the teenagers. We have probably spent more time together as a family than we ever thought that we would; sometimes not ideal, but along the way some good memories have sneaked in…film night, getting the barbecue up and running, a family walk or two. Be grateful for what you have, not what you haven’t got.
I guess that I am not alone in feeling that the novelty has now worn off. My role is still the same as Chief Constable, but the context has changed. It is very upsetting to think how many people have died, and to see just how hard our health colleagues are working. I get cross when I see people ignoring the regulations that so many have stuck to throughout. It seems very selfish to me. This isn’t easy for anyone, but if we stick together then we will all do better than if we don’t. Please don’t put my colleagues at risk for the sake of something trivial, they deserve better.
I couldn’t be prouder of the Force. We have served the public 24/7 throughout. For us the option to close and become COVID compliant hasn’t been available. We’ve just had to keep on keeping on. I do find myself working through in my head how to keep colleagues safe. The vaccine for policing would be a step forward.
Right at the start we set out as a Force to identify what about working differently, because of COVID, we would wish to keep when it is gone. We have used technology like Teams, Skype and Zoom for comms, we have got better at making meetings effective and efficient, we have become skilled at working from home, saved hours of travel time, and become greener because of less travel. I haven’t missed stumbling out of bed to catch the early train to London, grabbing a coffee and cramming onto the Tube to get to a meeting. Instead I have been getting up, cycling up a virtual mountain in the garage, having healthy poached eggs, showering and then strolling into the front room and logging on. An unexpected consequence of COVID has been that the lack of evening dinner commitments, absence of meetings with buffets, and invention of virtual cycling has all led to me being fitter, and half a stone lighter, than I was last March.
We’ve also upped our wellbeing work another notch - and it was turned up pretty high already. That will never change back. Checking if everyone is ok in this disconnected world is crucial, and totally natural. That will sustain ahead. Our digital access points have become used more and more; we have dealt with almost 17,000 online reports of all sorts of things. The national work that I lead on, a single online home for policing, set up an online COVID contact service for policing in a weekend back in March 2020; as I type it has had over 1 million contacts so far.
We’ve also been able to focus on offenders. The absence of the night time economy has made us realise how much of our resource that takes up, both on the night itself and across the following day as those that we’ve arrested sober up and are ready to be dealt with. That time has been refocused on organised crime groups, county lines drugs dealers and safeguarding people. The criminals that make life a misery have had nowhere to hide in a world where there just aren’t that many people out and about.
It hasn’t been hard to be motivated. To see the efforts of health colleagues and to look at the response of police colleagues is inspiring. To see how communities have pulled together drives me on. There is always hope, that matters. It would be good to see Mum, or to sing along at a gig, or to stamp my feet as ‘Smoke on the Water’ cranks up as the Tigers run out at a packed Welford Road. It would, strangely, feel good to be able to worry about the teenagers because they are out, not because they are in! These things will come. There is hope. One of those hopes is that we can look back and say that we played our part, and that we did our best. But it's not yet the time for looking back. It’s the time to keep on keeping on.
Leicestershire Police News 22/03/2021