Police federation accuses Scottish Government of ‘deliberately ambiguous’ Covid-19 messaging

The organisation representing rank and file police officers across Scotland has accused the Scottish Government of “deliberately ambiguous” messaging on how Covid-19 restrictions are being enforced.

The Scottish Police Federation said frontline officers should be given daily Covid-19 tests. Picture: John Devlin

The Scottish Police Federation warned that there is “already too much a gap emerging between what the law says, what the guidance says, and what the public is prepared to tolerate,” and forecast that the divergence would only widen in the coming weeks, as the public’s “hunger for freedom” increases throughout the pandemic.

Amid ongoing concerns at how the easing of lockdown restrictions is impacting on compliance, the federation said there was a disparity between the public’s expectations of how police should respond, and the legislative provisions in place.

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“Rather than seek to address that gap in its messaging, the government messaging was deliberately ambiguous, and this has led an outpouring of frustration - particularly on social media - between those who want the police to be more authoritarian and those who advocate for liberty and policing within the limits of the law,” it said.

It comes as Police Scotland revealed that more than one in six of its employees who have undergone Covid-19 testing had tested positive for the virus as of 29 May. The force also said that securing PPE for its staff “continues to be challenging.”

The federation stressed that as the government moved to enact legislation enacting the new Covid-19 restrictions, the police service “did not know precisely what was being asked of it until the eve of the legislative restrictions coming into place.”

It was “regrettable,” it added, that there was no early engagement with police about what it described as “perhaps the most restrictive legislation passed in our lifetimes.” The degree of public compliance at the outset of the lockdown, it added, was “frankly remarkable” in light of officers being asked to follow “last minute” operational guidance and “work arounds.”

The Scottish Government said there was “always a balance to be struck between what is in legislation and what is in guidance,” and emphasised that police had been “involved at all stages” of the process.

The catalogue of criticisms is laid out in a letter sent by the federation to Holyrood’s justice sub-committee on policing, ahead of its latest meeting tomorrow.

The Association of Police Superintendents has also written to the sub-committee, pointing out that complaints about police action taken during the pandemic were indicative of the public confusing the legislation with the broadcast advice and guidance, an occurrence which proved “challenging for the frontline policing response.”

Going forward, it emphasised the need for any amendments or new legislation to avoid criminalising “normal behaviours and actions.” It singled out the guidance limiting travel to a five mile radius, which it said risked discriminating against Scots in rural communities if brought into strict regulation.

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In its submission, the Scottish Police Federation also called for daily testing of frontline police and others in response roles, pointing out that through no fault of their own, it is those very officers who “represent the greatest risk of spreading the virus through communities.”

It also said the most high-profile challenge facing its officers was Covid-19 assaults. Ordinary police officers, it explained, are “exceptionally angry” that neither Police Scotland nor the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service took a “deliberate and unambiguous position” that those committing such assaults should be held in custody pending court appearances.

“The harm this caused - and continues to cause - cannot be understated,” it added. “On one hand officers were, and are, expected to enforce legislation to ‘save lives’ whilst on the other having to tolerate those who endangered their own lives often being home in their beds before the officers themselves were off duty.

“The very obvious conflict between custody arrangements, courts, and the safety of the officers were skewed towards the benefit of the former. Given the ask that was, and is being made of police officers, this is a morally indefensible position.”

The federation also suggested that the backlog in the nation’s courts brought about by the pandemic will likely take “several years to clear,” and risks “significantly undermining” the confidence of victims and witnesses in the justice system.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “There is always a balance to be struck between what is in legislation and what is in guidance. Police Scotland has been involved at all stages as we have considered these issues.

“The Scottish Government has absolute confidence in Police Scotland and their ability and professionalism to support the measures in place to keep the people of Scotland safe with an independent survey showing strong public support for policing in Scotland during the pandemic, which is to be welcomed.

She added: “The chief constable has consistently made it clear that it is important that the policing tone and style reflects the need for positive engagement and that common sense needs to be applied by everyone. The vast majority of people have complied with the rules. Officers have focused on engaging, explaining, and encouraging and only using enforcement as a last resort.”

The Holyrood sub-committee will also hear from John Scott QC, chair of the independent advisory group on police use of temporary powers related to the coronavirus crisis, as well as from Iain Livingstone, chief constable of Police Scotland.

In an accompanying submission to the meeting, the force revealed that out of 1,130 employees tested as of 29 May, 200 had tested positive.

It also said that securing suitable PPE for staff “continues to be challenging.” As of 3 June, more than 12,500 frontline police officers and staff have been trained, equipped, or re-supplied with the necessary PPE.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, the sub-committee convener, John Finnie MSP, said: “Policing in these extraordinary times, with powers inconceivable even a month before they were brought into force, was always going to be a challenge.

“Members are very grateful to officers and staff for rising to this unique challenge, with the low number of enforcement actions being testament not only to the public’s cooperation, but also the proportionate and consensual approach taken by the force.

“Nonetheless, public scrutiny of the police remains as important as ever, particularly as we begin to take steps out of lockdown and police powers continue to change.

“There will also be more challenging circumstances ahead, which need to be thought about carefully before we, as legislators, and the police, as those who enforce criminal law, take further action.”

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