Policing a Pandemic

Just how will our service operate in these challenging times? Darren Martin considers

In October 1918 a flu pandemic spread across the world which impacted the day to day life of millions. That pandemic resulted in medical and emergency services being stretched to their limits. While the hospitals and staff battled to treat as many of the sick as they could, the police were tasked with protection duties. The police in the United States were given orders to arrest anyone they saw sneezing or coughing in public. Police were deployed to protect the supply of medical supplies and to protect hospitals and medical staff. Many police officers fell to the flu at that time. While the majority of the police forces attended their duties, there are uncertain accounts of large amounts of them not presenting for duty or being unable to due to illness. When that pandemic passed it left millions dead and left a legacy that changed the role of policing for policing pandemics.

The police planning for such events is ongoing across the world. Police and security agencies include these events in their planning processes; learning on each event to improve their responses for the next event. This pandemic is no different. Medical experts talk about ‘when’ and not ‘if’ the next pandemic will occur; as do security services and policing services. The police have a highly important role to play during a pandemic, as are the duties they are called upon to perform.

The ECHR at Article 5(1) provides that everyone has the right to liberty and security of their person. However, Article 5 also provides for exceptions, permitting detention in certain circumstances not related to crime investigation. Article 5 (e) is one exception, allowing the lawful detention of persons for the prevention of the spreading of infectious diseases.

The Health Act 1947, permits the Chief Medical Officer to form an opinion, or be informed by another that a person is a source of infection resulting in a written order for their isolation in a hospital or other suitable place when that person cannot be effectively isolated in his home. It is a criminal offence for that person or other person to attempt to leave that location, or for another person to assist by obstructing or interfering with their detention. The Act provides for regulations and the Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Regulations 2020 includes Covid-19 in the schedule as an infectious disease for the purposes of the Act. The Data Protection Act 2018, Section 53(a) permits the sharing of personal data for the purposes of public interest in the area of public health, where it is necessary for public interest reasons to protect against serious cross border threats to health.

The policing of the current pandemic is unprecedented and requires a multi-agency approach. Many police services have plans ready for many years for such an event. This planning requires a number of commitments for policing services to include their primary duties and as a support role for other agencies. The primary roles call for clear roles and responsibilities, identifying critical services and resources and also being able to adopt to the changing situation. External plans address the continued provision of security, the protection of the population, the execution of public health orders and assistance in dealing with casualties.

Internal planning includes Human Resource management; key issues including the health and safety of members as required under the Act of 2005, infection prevention and employee fatigue prevention, as the event may last a protracted period. Case studies published by PERF projected that police absences through self -isolation or illness could reach anywhere between 60% – 80% as infection rates increase. This was attributed to the high-risk factor of exposure to infection on frontline policing staff. Additional concerns for HRM is the transmission of information on how to protect from infection and the resulting dangers associated with these duties. Members will be conscious of risk when dealing with persons in the course of their duties, especially when dealing with a prisoner who is suspected to be infected and deliberately attempts to injure or infect a member in the course of their duty. This is balanced by the additional HRM requirement to discourage sick staff from attending work which may result in further infections of co-workers as a result.

Key considerations for policing services include the need to understand the threat, seek expert advice, continue to build relationships with other agencies, acquire extra resources, identify legal provisions which may be required, set reasonable expectations on staff, plan for staff absences, identify key skills within the service which can be called upon, the need to plan long term. In addition, the need for regular communications, both internal and external, the change in technology use, the provision of PPE and to include the family considerations of staff in any personal protection plans.

In reality, the compliance and co-operation of the general public is preferable. This is an exceptional event which will have exceptional emergency workers committed to protecting the public on the front line. History has shown that events will move quickly and require planning which is adaptive and dynamic across multiple agencies. In this time An Garda Síochána rises to these challenges for the protection of life as its primary concern, both for the public and for its own members.

Darren Martin (BL, LL.M, M.Sc. BCL, BA) is a serving member of An Garda Síochána


For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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