The true cost of COVID-19 on policing


By Alison Dewhirst, CIPFA Police Advisor

Policing has received relatively little attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet the costs to this frontline service have been significant. We now know that the extra costs for personal protective equipment (PPE) will be reimbursed by the government, but with a second wave of the virus possibly on its way, financial certainty for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) and forces is still imperative.

During the UK lockdown, the greatest costs for police forces were on PPE for officers and staff and ICT to enable officers and staff to work from home. While PPE will be reimbursed, there are still other COVID-related expenses that may not be covered. This includes the costs related to overtime, the re-employment of retired officers and the buying back of cancelled leave. PCCs are providing monthly returns to the Home Office on COVID-19-related costs to give a more detailed picture as the months progress.

The Home Office has given PCCs flexibility in their use of the Operation Uplift grant, which was announced in autumn 2019 as a drive to recruit 20,000 new police officers over the next three years. PCCs have also paid a pensions grant two months early in order to assist with cashflow. However, this gives very little flexibility for forces who have already recruited up to their target of additional police officers. This is magnified when you consider that the vast majority of police budgets are spent on salaries and pensions. When anticipated pay rises of 2.5% and inflation are factored in, there is very little room left for manoeuvre in the event of a crisis.

In addition to the immediate cashflow and funding problems for this financial year, there are growing concerns about the amounts collected via the police precept share of local council tax. This affects the financial situation of councils, unitary authorities and other organisations that collect the police precept from local taxpayers. Some council chief financial officers are warning that they may have to issue S.114 notices - effectively filing bankruptcy. The situation is especially difficult for those who are faced with reduced income and sudden, high expenditure during the COVID-19 crisis.

Sir Tom Winsor, who currently serves as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, restated his call for multi-year financial settlements in his State of Policing 2019 report published in July. These settlements would allow police forces to effectively plan for the future – which is crucial in times of crisis and uncertainty. The National Audit Office and CIPFA have echoed this call. This year’s spending review, anticipated for November, may well bring such a multi-year settlement for policing.

While this is good news and will without a doubt make the situation easier, budgets will remain incredibly tight considering the current recession, the extent of income lost and the anticipated pay increase for police officers.

It is imperative that multi-year police settlements do more than just provide flexibility for forces. Police forces must be adequately funded to allow them to meet the recruitment targets set by government and to tackle the ever-changing nature of crime, while also ensuring they can respond to any unexpected challenges that present themselves, including future waves of COVID-19.

This article first appeared in Public Finance.

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