I’ve written before about the enormity of the challenge posed by the summer surge of visitors on our area, and my campaign for additional funding for a force that has the equivalent of an extra city the size of Exeter in its patch for which it receives no money.
This year the challenge of policing Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in the summer months might be greater than ever as people’s access to foreign holidays is limited and restrictions on domestic travel and overnight stays are easing.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown I joined others from the region in a campaign to tell tourists that we’d prefer it if they #ComeBackLater. We meant what we said and I was therefore pleased with the effort put in by Devon and Cornwall police officers who, according to data released on Friday (June 26) had issued 979 fixed penalty notices to people who breached restrictions – more than the vast majority of forces. That figure is the tiny fraction of the number of people spoken to and given advice by the force.
I was always clear, however, that there would be a time when, supported by scientific advice, we should change the message to cautiously welcoming visitors and encouraging people to once again get out and about. Coronavirus has claimed too many lives, but any lockdown will also take its toll; on people’s livelihoods, on their mental health and on their general quality of life.
From Saturday (July 4) two households of any size in England will be allowed to meet up indoors and stay overnight. Pubs, bars, hair salons and other businesses will be back open, albeit with strict regulations. If cases of Covid-19 continue to be supressed then the time for inviting tourists back to the Westcountry might soon be upon us.
We do, however, have to proceed sensibly. I appreciate that summer weather is a great opportunity to get out and socialise and within a few days we will all be able to enjoy significantly more freedom than we have before.
I think it will help avoid some of the anti-social behaviour we have seen in recent weeks as the pub managers, landlords and licenced door staff will be back. If you speak to any frontline police officer they will tell you what a vital role these people, and volunteers like Street Pastors, have in keeping people safe while they are out enjoying themselves and supporting our night time economy.
I was appalled by the scenes at places like Exmouth beach last week, when huge crowds were behaving irresponsibly. Around 200 young people were drinking, and in some cases fighting, with large numbers of them drunk. One man was assaulted in the town and there were numerous assaults on police officers reported across Devon and Plymouth. It was incredible to hear it was Special Constables at Exmouth who arrived on the scene first too to tackle this behaviour before reinforcements arrived.
Police quickly issued a dispersal order in an effort to restore order to the beach on Wednesday evening and opened their summer policing operation early, meaning more resources to keep people safe at key locations. This meant disorder on Thursday night was nipped in the bud more quickly as additional patrols were put in place and alcohol was removed from people arriving at the town’s train station.
I am fully supportive of the commitment made by senior officers last week to do ‘whatever is necessary’ to protect communities from crime and disorder as we enter what is the force’s busiest period. If you remember I have supported these efforts by making an additional £400,000 from local tax rises available to ensure that there are sufficient officers in the right place through the summer months.
Part of this money has gone towards a Mental Health Response Car which, from Wednesday (July 1) will see police officers teamed up with mental health professionals to deploy to people in crisis. It is a practical step towards dealing with the spike in mental health related incidents we see in the summer months.
I am also launching an antisocial behaviour fund to assist councils in better managing public spaces. This will pay for things like street marshals, CCTV and temporary toilets.
I would urge those whose behaviour upset so many people last week to reflect on the fact that they are drawing resources from emergency services at their busiest times. I want our paramedics and police officers to be helping the most vulnerable in society – not rushing to split up fights between teenagers who have had too much to drink.
If you are out this weekend, as I am sure many of you will be, I hope you enjoy some of the freedoms that have been denied to us for so long, are mindful of others and keep safe and well.