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The Coronavirus Crisis: Can Rishi Sunak Win the Peace, Not Just Fight the War?

Gareth Roberts argues that the Chancellor must not revert to type after the COVID-19 pandemic eases and preside over the continued under-funding of public services.

The Coronavirus Crisis
Can Rishi Sunak Win the Peace, Not Just Fight the War?

Gareth Roberts argues that the Chancellor must not revert to type after the COVID-19 pandemic eases and preside over the continued under-funding of public services.

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Sifting through the deluge of slogans and polemic that have accompanied the Coronavirus crisis, it’s clear that, for some, this pandemic is more than a public health catastrophe – it’s a war. “We must act like a wartime Government,” the Prime Minister has said. “We are at war with an invisible enemy,” according to the Health Secretary.

While I don’t believe that comparisons to wartime are that helpful, they do remind us of two principles of waging war that have often been forgotten in recent years: one is to be mindful of collateral casualties, and the other is to make good preparations for peace. 

One of the challenges for the Government is, not just to get the country through the COVID-19 outbreak, but to ensure that the key elements of our society – the things that we hold dear and rely upon to keep us cohesive, productive and safe – will still be there, alive and well, once it is over.

Law and order and our criminal justice system is one of these elements.

Police resources are currently being properly deployed to ensure that people follow the rules on social distancing and isolation, whilst the courts have been pretty much mothballed with no trials taking place and all other hearings either adjourned or being done remotely. Of course, this is entirely understandable in the current circumstances – but, we can’t forget that, whilst we fight COVID-19, crime and criminals are going about their business as usual.  

Crime Doesn’t Stop

The drugs business doesn’t go into isolation. People who use drugs, including those who have a problematic relationship with them, aren’t suddenly going to stop craving them. Drug dealers, without the option of furlough or assistance from the Government, aren’t going to enjoy a moment of civic responsibility and heed Government advice to cease their operations.

In the world of drugs and its associated crime, it will be business as usual, COVID-19 or not. Indeed, one of the uglier stories from last week was of the family who went outside their front door to take part in the ‘clap for carers’, only for a burglar to come in through their back door and steal the family’s laptop.

County lines drug operations occur when drugs are moved from one area to an address in another area. More often than not, those doing the moving are young men, confused and misguided innocents, lured into drug gangs by threat, coercion and the promise of glamour. The addresses they take the drugs to are usually owned by veteran drug users who know where the customers are and will allow their premises to be used in return for a few free bags of white or brown. County lines drugs operations are massive, with the National Crime Agency estimating that a single dealer can generate up to £1,000 a day.

In virus-free times, these young drugs mules and premises exist camouflaged by the fug of ordinary life that goes on around them. But, in these strange times, they stick out like a sore thumb and – although the police aren’t currently prioritising the capture and break-up of these gangs – I am reliably informed that some intelligence is still being gathered and collated and that, when we return to more normal times, the police could be in a very good position to arrest some of the biggest players in the UK drug industry. 

Markets Versus Direct Support

A friend who is police officer told me last week how he is terrified that vulnerable people are being forced into isolation with those who are abusing them physically and sexually.  

Some police forces are already reporting a rise in the numbers of domestic abuse cases, whilst the awful reality that the isolation policy is forcing many children to stay within the same four walls as those who are subjecting them to sexual torture doesn’t bear thinking about. 

As a society, we can’t forget about these silent casualties of the Coronavirus. As well as looking out for our elderly and vulnerable neighbours and making sure that they have enough food and supplies, now more than ever we should also keep an eye on the house or flat in which tensions may lead to violence or a child may be in need of help. 

The Government has a massive role to play. A decade of austerity has decimated some of the vital institutions that are in place to help the vulnerable and keep us all safe. Local authorities have been forced to slash social service provisions and the criminal justice system has been cut savagely – to the extent that, even before this crisis, there was a massive backlog in the processing of those accused of criminal offences. 

The popular view seems to be that Rishi Sunak is having a good pandemic. Chancellor for just over a month and suddenly thrust into a crisis that no one could have had foreseen, he has proved himself to be calm and sure-footed, capable of ignoring the siren voices of those who are ideologically averse to expanding the state or using Government money to directly help ordinary people.

However, if he wants to win the peace, he is going to have to put into place the resources that have been lost to local authorities, police forces, crown courts and even criminal barristers (who have been afforded no assistance whatsoever from the Chancellor’s self-employment provisions, despite the fact that most of them live with significant debt and are now earning nothing).

He is going to have to prove that his ability to use state funding to try to keep business afloat and families from poverty is not just a ploy, but part of an understanding that actually a collective and direct response to a problem can lead to a much more positive solution than the slavish belief that the markets will sort out our ills – which has been the mantra of government for decades and which has proven to be utterly flawed in the face of the Coronavirus.

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