Primodos: The first step towards Justice

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Sharon Hartles reflects upon the significant impacts of avoidable harms that have been perpetuated for decades through a culture of denial and an absence of state and corporate pharmaceutical accountability. Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from The Open University in December 2019 and is a member of HERC. 

Primodos was the most widely used hormone pregnancy test prescribed to women in the UK. During 1958 to 1970 Primodos was marketed as a hormone pregnancy test and for the treatment of secondary amenorrhea. However, this was changed to just the treatment of secondary amenorrhea from 1970 to 1978, at which stage Primodos was withdrawn from the UK market. When Primodos was placed on the UK market in 1958 there was no centralised structured pharmaceutical regulation. In other words, no licence was required, no specific safety test was needed and there was no general consumer protection legislation.

In 1978, the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, was set up in the UK to represent families who suffered congenital abnormalities, stillbirths and miscarriages, allegedly due to taking the oral hormone pregnancy test Primodos. Decades of fighting for justice to uncover the truth about the failures of past Government Health Regulatory Authorities led to a review being commissioned in February 2018, by Jeremy Hunt, the then, Secretary of State.

The announcement in the House of Commons was for a review into how the health system responds to reports about harmful side effects from medicines. This stemmed from patient-led activist campaigns on the use of: hormone pregnancy test Primodos, sodium valproate and surgical mesh. Jeremy Hunt stated “patients and their families have had to spend too much time and energy campaigning for answers in a way that has added insult to injury for many.”

Two and a half years after this review was commissioned, on Wednesday 8th July 2020, the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review published the First Do No Harm Report. This Report, together with the additional supporting documents to accompany it including: Personal Testimonies, Oral Hearing Transcripts, Hormone Pregnancy Tests Supporting Information, Timeline Key Events, History of Regulation and the Press Conference Speech (by Baroness Julia Cumberledge, CBE, Chair of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review) evidence unequivocal systemic failures and a clear link between PRIMODOS and its tragic side-effects.


Marie Lyon, Chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests and active campaigner for justice, since 1978, on reading the First Do No Harm Report, declared “I’ve tried to be very calm and I can’t. It’s the fact it’s been acknowledged. They’ve actually looked at the documentation honestly and openly and for me that is the biggest result for our families today. They will be absolutely overjoyed.”

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review has set out nine recommendations in their First Do No Harm Report. Recommendation 1: states ‘The Government should immediately issue a fulsome apology on behalf of the healthcare system to the families affected by Primodos, sodium valproate and pelvic mesh.’ On the 8th July (the date the report was published) Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care apologised “on behalf of the NHS and the whole healthcare system” to those who have suffered and their families.

For decades, there have been numerous publications evidencing an association between hormone pregnancy tests and congenital malformations in babies. In 2018 and 2019, Oxford University published an analysis of data which found a clear association relating to Primodos and birth defects. Other supporting research which have found links between hormone pregnancy tests and birth defects includes:

However, there have also been opposing publications which have found no association and/or inconclusive results. In 2017, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) published their report on the use of hormone pregnancy tests and adverse effects related to pregnancy including possible birth defects. The MHRA is an independent Expert Working Group of the UK’s commission on Human Medicines, which was established, in October 2015, in order to conduct this review. The MHRA found there to be insufficient evidence to support an association. Other opposing research includes:

For Marie Lyon, Chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests “after viewing the oral evidence presented by members of the Expert Working Group who were responsible for the scientific publication in 2017, it seems I already have a perfect example of the denial and protection culture endemic in our regulators. Denial when problems occur and protection, not for the patient but for the manufacturer.”

In light of the decades of jostling to and fro of supporting and opposing evidence, it is clearer to understand why the findings of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review in the First Do No Harm Report, together with Matt Hancock’s prompt apology on behalf of the UK Government and acceptance may in the first instance offer some form of relief for the families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests.

In the Press Conference Speech by Baroness Julia Cumberledge Chair of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, she stated ‘In our view Primodos continued to be given as a pregnancy test for years longer than it should. In the face of growing concerns it should have ceased to be available from 1967.’ Yet Primodos remained on the UK market until 1978. This is a failure on behalf of the UK Government to protect its population from harm. Equally, a failure on behalf of the corporation Bayer (Schering). Primodos, was manufactured by Schering in Germany. In 2006 Schering was acquired by Bayer plc.

It is important to point out that Amenorone Forte a hormone pregnancy test prescribed by GPs, during this same time frame, acted in much the same way as Primodos and was manufactured by Roussel in France.  Roussel was acquired by Sanofi in 2004. For this reason families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests hold both corporations accountable for the avoidable harm inflicted.

According to the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, History of Regulation, The Medicines Act 1968 received Royal Assent in October 1968, however the ‘transitional period’ meant this Act did not come into effect until 1st September 1971. During this time the Committee on Safety of Drugs was formed, yet it had no legal powers. With little irony, there was no formal regulator, it was part of a voluntary arrangement. There was no body to legally mandate the removal of a drug from the market and limited mechanisms to regulate drugs and restrict their use.

More systemic failures followed because the Committee on Safety of Medicines, (which replaced the Committee on Safety of Drugs, 1st September 1971) focused its gaze on formalising new medicines entering the UK market. Products, including Primodos, which had been on the market before the 1st September 1971 were automatically granted a Product Licences of Right (PLR).

Primodos was awarded a PLR yet its product which had been on the market since 1958, had never been required to submit evidence of quality, safety or efficacy. This oversight to ensure Primodos met the appropriate standards of safety, quality and performance in line with new rules was another missed opportunity to protect public health and safeguard the interests of patients and users.

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review Timeline has brought to light other damning evidence. On 22nd July 1969 Schering UK wrote to Schering Germany recommending the removal of the pregnancy testing indication. In a letter dated 17th February 1970 to Schering, Dr Ruttle a member of the Standing Committee on the Classification of Proprietary Preparations (known as the MacGregor Committee – 1965 and 1971) which provided guidance as to which preparations should be used on the NHS, stated ‘The Committee would be prepared to place the product in A.3 if the promotional indication as a “pregnancy test” were withdrawn and I would suggest that the most appropriate and, acceptable to the Committee, promotion be “symptomatic treatment of amenorrhea to produce withdrawal bleeding.”

On the 9th March 1970 Schering agreed ‘to the deletion of “pregnancy test” from the indications, and to the promotional statement “the symptomatic treatment of amenorrhea not due to pregnancy, by producing withdrawal bleeding”. Further correspondence in April 1970 acknowledged the suggestions from Schering (removing the pregnancy test indication and altering promotional statements) and confirmed that Primodos would be placed in category A.3 (prescription-only medicines).

Five years later, the Committee on Safety of Medicines (an independent advisory committee to the UK medicines licencing authority) published a letter in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on 26th April 1975. In this letter the Committee on Safety of Medicines stated they agreed with an article published five months earlier in the BMJ entitled Synthetic Sex Hormones and Infants which advised ‘there is little justification for the continued use of withdrawal type pregnancy tests when alternative methods are available.’

On 5th June 1975, the Committee on Safety of Medicines sent an alert letter – to all doctors in the UK – entitled Hormonal Pregnancy Tests, in which they advised them of a possible association between hormonal pregnancy tests and an increased incidence of congenital abnormalities. The Committee on Safety of Medicines stated ‘In view of the possible hazard, doctors should not normally prescribe certain hormonal preparations for pregnancy tests’.

Spanning 1958 to 1978, Primodos was given to around 1.5million women in Britain. Primodos was a hormone pregnancy test prescribed to women to detect pregnancy. It consisted of two tablets which were to be taken on consecutive days. A negative pregnancy test would result in a withdrawal bleed (within three to ten days of consumption of the tablets). It is now known that Primodos prescribed to women to confirm their pregnancy, by today’s standards equates to 13 morning-after pills or 40 oral contraceptive pills. Moreover, the hormones contained in Primodos are now used in the morning-after contraception pill.

A statement taken from the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review Personal Testimonies from the families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests illustrate their distress – “We feel that we were used as collateral damage by the pharmaceutical company who were developing the contraceptive drug at the time.” The personal testimonies of Nicky Gibbins and Daniel Mason evidence how “The effect on our lives have, as you can imagine, been devastating.” The alleged impacts of PRIMODOS comprise:

  • all congenital malformations
  • more specific malformations:
    • cardiac malformations
    • musculoskeletal
    • neurological
    • neurogenetical malformations
  • birth defects
  • miscarriage
  • stillbirth

The First Do No Harm Report together with the supporting documents is significant because it evidences a clear link between Primodos and the terrible avoidable harms that have been perpetuated for decades through a culture of denial and the absence of state and corporate accountability.

Acknowledgement in the form of an apology on behalf of the Government was the first step towards justice. However, in a letter dated 13th December 2018, to the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, Bayer stated ‘there is nobody at Bayer plc who could usefully contribute anything on the subject matter of your inquiry’. Notwithstanding this response, it is now time to look to the future.

The Government (on behalf of the UK regulators) and corporations Bayer (Schering) and Sanofi (Roussel) should as recommended in the First Do No Harm Report, fund the costs of care for those affected by state and corporate harm. In addition to this, the families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests using the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review evidence should be able to successfully take legal action for the harms done to them by Bayer, Sanofi and the regulators.

In line with recommendation 9, of the First Do No Harm Report, the Government has a duty to set up a task force which must schedule a timeline for the implementation of the remainder of the recommendations. Such initiatives should endeavour to provide a safety net to ensure that a patient-led approach is centred at the heart of future health care provision.

The perfect storm: reflections on the death of care homes residents and social care workers

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Vickie Cooper reflects on the deaths of care home residents and social care workers in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic. Vickie Cooper is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 25,000 NHS inpatients were discharged into care homes and the responsibility to protect this particularly vulnerable population was passed onto the social care sector.

Like a mirror, coronavirus reflects the damage done under austerity. In 2010, right-wing governments blamed the deficit problem on public sector expenditure, and through savage cuts to welfare, they removed key support mechanisms for people out of work, in low-paid work and those who cannot work. The social care sector has been particularly affected by austerity. Since 2010, £8 billion has been wiped off the social care budget, directly affecting who can access social care and quality of care.  The devastating impacts of these cuts can be seen in the spike in mortality rates amongst people over 60 and care home residents, with 45,368 excess deaths counted over a 4 year period.

This was the mortality landscape under austerity, long before COVID-19. Now at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, government ministers have rolled out reckless policy decisions and have multiplied the risk of infection in a sector that was already struggling against the tide of austerity. These reckless policy decisions have led to the death of scores of care home residents and social care workers. It is estimated that approximately 16,000 care home residents have died directly or indirectly as a result of COVID, but data is still emerging and the actual number is still unknown. Not alone in this plight, critical attention must also be paid to the disproportionate number of social care workers who have died as a result of COVID 19.


Mishandling at the Backdoor

At the peak of the pandemic 25,000 NHS inpatients were released into care homes. Health Ministers were quick to rule out the possibility that the NHS could meet the full demand of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already struggling with pre-existing demand and running on dwindling resources, the government knew that the NHS couldn’t survive a health crisis of this magnitude. Rather than face that inevitability, the government changed the goal posts and urged NHS trusts to move patients out the backdoor, to discharge them back into the community. And we’re hearing mixed messages about how this was coordinated, if it was coordinated at all.  NHS directors are claiming that they only discharged patients to residential homes where those homes agreed that it had the capacity and early on, Matt Hancock waded in with the vacuous promise to do ‘whatever it takes’ to support the social care sector. But care home providers claim that hospitals were discharging patients where there was no residential capacity and without protection or testing for the staff and residents. If the government’s farcical planning of PPE and testing is anything to go by, then we are probably safe to assume that decision to discharge NHS inpatients into care homes was not a joint or coordinated venture. On the contrary, testimonies and leaked reports reveal how government ministers repeatedly ignored expert advice not to discharge NHS patients into care homes and instead, local authorities ‘block-booked’ care home beds.

In February, just prior to lockdown, Public Health England National Infection Service advised the government not to discharge elderly patients from hospital to care homes, fearing that it will increase the spread of the virus. Age, pre-existing health conditions, shared communal facilities and regular contact with staff and care workers, were all known contributing factors seriously affecting care homes at the peak of the COVID pandemic.  Ignoring this advice, government reports then tried to peddle the idea that care homes were not at risk, claiming that its “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.”

Now thousands of bereaved families want to know why: why the government made the dangerous decision to discharge 25,000 patients into under-resourced and unprepared care homes.

This may be a new virus, but government Ministers were not facing too many unknowns when considering the impact of COVID 19 on care homes. Experience could be drawn from other countries. Just before the UK went into lockdown, we saw neighbouring countries struggle with mass fatalities in care homes. In Spain, the military found care homes abandoned by staff and found residents left in their beds, dead. Italy, Belgium and Sweden have reported similar, but different devastating impacts of Covid in residential homes. The evidence emerging from those countries was unambiguous: without radical lockdown measures, care home residents faced multiple, acute risks. These deaths could have been avoided. Had the government heeded the warning and legislated for radical lockdown measures in care homes, the outcome could have been very different. Radical lockdown measures could have involved the use of temporary accommodation to quarantine and isolate residents and the provision of full-payment of staff to move into the care home. The care homes that successfully reduced the risk of infection, voluntarily implemented radical lockdown measures and recommendations, whereas care homes that continued to admit new residents, owing to pressures from NHS levels of discharge, saw a rise in infection rates. Even with the provision of basic protection measures, the outcome could have been very different. At the beginning of lockdown, care homes struggled to acquire sufficient PPE and the extra local authority funding they received went towards independently purchasing PPE from over-priced suppliers. Amidst the PPE calamity, the government also ceased community testing in March and limited these crucial protection measures to hospitals. To the dismay of health experts and public at large, the government ceased community testing in support of ‘herd immunity’, which they suggested could delay the spread of the virus and ‘flatten the curve’. The government’s swaggering commitment to herd immunity led the implementation of dangerous political decisions that multiplied the risk of infection for this vulnerable population and social care staff.

Official health guidance published in February 25th states: “it’s unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.”


Institutional racism and structural inequality

The other silent killer in this uncomfortable story is the labour market and rampant inequality underpinning the social care sector – compared to other areas of the labour market. Blame has been apportioned with the model of working, with staff working between care homes and coming into contact with multiple different residents in any one shift. But rather than look to individual staff, we need to shine a light on the labour market driving the social care sector: the low-paid, precarious workers it relies upon, the creeping privatisation of sector at large, and regulatory framework tasked with monitoring the network of  public and private providers. It is these volatile economic conditions that drive the risk of infection and seriously undermine the health and safety conditions for care home residents and social care workers.

And these concerns are reflected in the data on coronavirus-related deaths, per occupation. The Office for National Statistics show that social care workers are particularly vulnerable to infection, where a disproportionate number of these workers have died as a result of COVID-19:

Men and women working in social care, a group including care workers and home carers, both had significantly raised rates of death involving COVID-19, with rates of 23.4 deaths per 100,000 males (45 deaths) and 9.6 deaths per 100,000 females (86 deaths).

The institutional and economic landscape of the social care sector also reinforces the same racialised and structural inequalities that are unravelling under COVID-19.  People from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds constitute a disproportionately high number of social care workers. In England, 1 in 5 social care workers in England are black, Asian or from a minority ethnic background, but this representation varies geographically. In London, for example, 67 per cent of social care workers are black, Asian or from minority ethnic backgrounds.  In terms of waged-labour, the social care sector notoriously ranks amongst the lowest paid sectors within the labour market, with a high number of staff recruited on zero-hour contracts, which is the most precarious form of employment. With such a low-waged sector, social care employers struggle to recruit and retain staff and draw heavily upon agency workers, bank staff and migrant workers as a source of low-waged labour.

How did such a critical source of care and support to so many become so volatile? Social care workers provide a crucial provision of care and support to millions of vulnerable people in society, but the scale of inequality they endure, compounded by years of government disinvestment, has culminated in the countless number of deaths of already disenfranchised and marginalised groups. The risks presented under COVID-19 are particularly acute for these groups because of the targeted nature of the political decisions and policies implemented, long before and during this pandemic. Political decisions were made that prioritised groups who matter and downplayed the risks of those who matter less. From care home residents to social care staff, government ministers ignored and downplayed all the known risks and rather than heed the warnings, they put them at even greaterrisk by releasing scores of vulnerable patients into the community, accommodated them in communal settings and refused the most basic safety provisions for the social care staff tasked with protecting them.

Moving on: Burying Coronavirus Deaths

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Joe Sim and Steve Tombs explore the numbers game that has been played by the Government since the start of the coronavirus crisis – and question their efforts now to move on from it. Joe Sim is a Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Tombs is a Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

The first reported UK death as a result of coronavirus was recorded on 2nd March. It was followed by three hospital deaths the next day – the day of the first Downing Street press briefing, where Boris Johnson said: ‘I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody.’ Johnson would continue shaking hands until at least 9th March when it was confirmed that a fifth person had died. In fact, updated NHS England data indicated that 16 people had died by 9th March, including three on the day Johnson declared that he was still shaking hands.

Then, on 23rd March, Johnson went on to announce what was to become quickly known as the ‘lockdown’ – albeit a misleading euphemism as many had to continue to work, if under far from normal conditions. These were the ‘key’ workers, a group covering not only health, social care and emergency service staff, but also included transport and shop workers, those in the food supply chain, cleaners, postmen and postwomen, refuse collectors, and, albeit less celebrated, workers in construction, security and the diffuse areas of the gig economy. These groups who worked through the ‘lockdown’, mostly in “low-paid, manual jobs”, were, it was revealed in early May by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), up to four times more likely to be killed by exposure to the virus than those in “professional and technical roles”.

Counting the Cost of Coronavirus?

Within three months, by 8th June, the government’s record on the coronavirus was described as “shameful”. In a global context, the UK’s sorry status was reported as follows:

5th in the total number of cases;

4th in terms of deaths per million of the population;

2nd in the total number of deaths;

1st in excess deaths per million of the population.


One week later, on June 16th, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the total number of excess deaths – the statistic that is regarded as the most comprehensive for measuring the impact of a pandemic – had reached 64,500, or 671 a day, dating back to 2nd March.

This gruesome figure for excess deaths does not begin to account for the cancellation of hospital operations for ongoing medical conditions which has added another lethal layer beyond the devastating immediacy of the virus. To take one example: it is estimated that a further 18,000 extra cancer-related deaths could occur over the next year as a result of delays in cancer treatment during the height of the pandemic.

Nor, of course, do stark figures of death say anything about the traumatic desolation experienced by, and the multitude of harms caused to, the anguished families, relatives and friends of the deceased, a toll which is incalculable but increasingly being hidden, ignored and marginalized – except, that is, for the frankly insulting platitude of ‘our hearts go out to all those who have lost loved ones’ message mealy-mouthed by whichever politician happened to draw the short straw to front the Government’s daily press briefing and was thereby obliged to mention the hundreds of deaths the previous day, before moving on, of course, to ‘the next slide’. 

Draw a Line and Move on

Exactly one week after the ONS had revealed a total of excess deaths close to 65,000, Johnson, in typically upbeat tone, announced in the Commons the effective end of lockdown in England, dubbed by himself as the end of “our long national hibernation”, and by others as ‘Super Saturday’, or as the UK’s 4th July ‘Independence day’ which the Telegraph had demanded weeks earlier.

Johnson went on to “encourage people to take advantage of the freedoms that they are rightly reacquiring”, wanting to see “people out in the shops—it is a fantastic thing to see. Yes, I want to see people taking advantage of hospitality again—a wonderful thing”. And he urged those in tourism to send out a welcoming signal ​to people from other parts of our country and to roll out the welcome mat, rather than the “Not welcome here” sign. The next day he spent much of Prime Minister’s Questions encouraging MPs from seaside towns to throw open their doors and extend hospitality to visitors.


As he spoke, a mini-heatwave was moving northwards across the UK, accompanied by mass gatherings in parks, resorts and city centres. Some of these resulted in clashes between people and police. The net effect was to generate real fears of social disorder two weeks later, when such gatherings, not least in and around bars, would become quasi-legal. Two days later, on 26th June, it was announced at the Government’s daily coronavirus press conference that it would be the last.

Back to Business and Burying the Dead

However, over the previous 24 hours to 26th June, 186 people had died from the virus. In the seven days up to that day, there had been 848 such deaths, a rolling average of 121 a day. This was, of course, considerably down on the reported  April 8th peak, when 1,445 people died from Covid-19 in 24 hours – one of 22 consecutive days on which more than 1,000 people died in the UK every day.

But this ‘low’ figure of of 848 weekly deaths, unnoticed as a return to business as usual was being eagerly heralded, has to be placed in the context of more ‘normal’ times and more routine Government priorities. For example, in the year up to September 2019, there were 617 homicides in England and Wales. Or, if the same number of 121 people who died on an average day that week had been killed in a multi-fatality incident – an industrial disaster, plane crash or ‘terrorist attack’ – the cries of outrage would have been deafening. Not with COVID-19, though. The dominant discourse had become, and remains, that it was ‘unprecedented’, a word that appears to cover much – every death toll, every error, every incompetence, every lack of preparedness  – but does not really say anything. 

So while 848 people died, this was the week in which the Government sent out signals that the crisis was more or less over. Only local “flare ups” were to be feared should now fully responsibilised citizens fail to act to protect each other by maintaining ‘1 meter-plus’ distancing at work in shops, offices and factories – where possible – or as they drank and ate in bars, restaurants and cafes whilst planning holidays to kick-start the hospitality economy, all the time once again freely moving around and between our cities and towns.

Given this bizarre juxtaposition – still over 100 officially recorded deaths a day in the context of the effective announcement of normality – how were the deaths covered in the broadcasting and print media?

Taking the main news broadcasts on Friday 26th June as a snapshot, there was no coverage at all of the daily death rates on Channel 4 News broadcast between 7 and 8pm.  The BBC’s main news bulletin at 10pm did provide some coverage of the virus, including the daily death rate. This lasted for 34 seconds. In contrast, Liverpool’s Premier League Championship win took up 6 minutes and 20 seconds, 11 times the coverage of the daily death rate. This, in turn, was almost a full minute more than the lead story which concerned the appalling devastation in Yemen where one child was dying every ten minutes due to a combination of war and the virus. So even here the broadcaster still gave more air time to football than to the harrowing and utterly preventable deaths of children.

On ITV’s News at 10, COVID-19 was covered for 1 minute 39 seconds. The programme at least recognised that the 186 deaths was the highest daily increase for 10 days but did also introduce the usual caveats about focussing on the rolling 7-day average rather than looking at one day’s figures. Liverpool’s League Championship win was given twice the coverage, at 3 minutes 22 seconds.

The main headlines on the front pages of the nine national newspapers on the morning of 27th June also contained nothing about the latest number of deaths, but did contain advice for foreign holidays: Green Light for Hols (The Mirror) and Fly Out for Sun, Sea and 70% off (Daily Mail).

Clearly, at this point, we would not claim that these broadcasts and headlines were based on any kind of random sample. However, they do reinforce our argument and suspicion about the government’s shameless desire to move the caravan of death on and to open up the country again, for British business, beer and holidays. Quite literally, in human and media terms, the disposables have been disposed of. Coronavirus death has become normalised.


Several questions become crucial as we are on the brink of the weekend on which ‘lockdown’ is released – albeit as tighter restrictions on work and travel have been re-imposed on Leicester, a city of over half a million and one of the most ethnically diverse in England, facts-on the-ground indicating that there is no real, only a discursive, ‘moving on’.

These questions include: where is the political discussion about the devastating and still unfolding toll of avoidable deaths? Who or what will be held accountable, and how? And, will there be a time when the daily rate of death ever again becomes politically and morally unacceptable and a focus for the media, politicians, the government and the wider population? Or, will the facts around the horrendous levels of preventable deaths, and the long-term devastation wrought by the virus on hundreds of thousands of lives be, in the words of Hannah Arendt  ‘denied and distorted, often covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion[?]’

If this happened it would be morally and politically intolerable. However, at this dangerous moment it would not be surprising given the political forces at work in constructing the dominant, consensual narrative that society needs to move on to the promised land of Brexit and to the ideological normality that the UK has a world-beating, track record in every conceivable area – excluding, of course, in preventing COVID-19 deaths.

This blog has been simultaneously published by the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion at Liverpool John Moores University, see 

Abolitionism must come from below: A critique of British Anti-Slavery Abolition

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, David Scott argues that contemporary penal abolitionists can take inspiration not from British liberal anti-slavery ‘abolitionism from above’ but from the lived experiences and testimonies of slaves and former slaves. David Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Picture of Black Lives Matter Activists Throwing Statue of Edward Colston into river, June 2020

The political fall-out following the death of George Floyd, who died on the 25th May 2020 during a coercive physical restraint by a police officer in Minneapolis, USA and the revival of Black Lives Matter on a global level, has placed renewed emphasis on calls for defunding the state police and greater acknowledgement of the brutal British colonial past.  These calls, alongside those for further recognition of the manner in which British wealth is in large part historically derived from the slave trade, have great significance for penal abolitionism (a moral philosophy which questions all forms of legal repression and dehumanisation).   In the UK one of the main mobilising events of Black Lives Matter  has been to call for the pulling down of statues and monuments which were erected to honour slave traders, such as the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. 

Given this renewed emphasis on the British slave trade, should penal abolitionists today take inspiration from anti-slavery abolitionists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and the broader political culture in Britain at that time? The short answer, I would argue, is NO. The bourgeois British liberal anti-slavery ‘abolitionism from above’ was not an emancipatory social movement like Black Lives Matter, nor did it connect with, or was motivated by, the experiences and voice of former slaves, as was sometimes the case in the USA anti-slavery movement during the mid-1800s.  If we are looking for inspiration when challenging legal repression, dehumanisation and state coercion, then it is to the lived experiences and testimonies of slaves and former slaves, such as the American former slave Frederick Douglas, or Toussaint Louverture and all those slaves involved in the proclamation of the Republic of Haiti (Saint Domingue) from 1791-1804, that we will find genuinely radical and emancipatory social actors.

The politics of anti-slavery and English liberty

Whilst calls for the abolition of slavery had a long history – such as Jean Bodin in the 1570s or Antonio Vieira in the 1650s, in the main slavery was taken for granted in moral and political philosophy.  Indeed, it was not until the writings of John Woolman and his fellow Quakers that there was an organised and principled critique of slavery in Britain.  The British anti-slavery abolitionist movement that is most heralded today, however, emerged in the 1780s, and was underscored with ideas of free trade and free labour.  For the British anti-slavery abolitionists ‘coerced labour‘ (i.e. slavery) was increasingly seen as less productive than ‘free labour’ (i.e. labour exchanged for money in the free market) and this was something that would become of increasing significance for capitalist accumulation across the British colonies at  turn of the nineteenth century.  Whilst these economic arguments proved wrong, they opened a space for a moral critique of chattel slavery.

Recognition that chattel slavery was a ‘social evil’ also gained moral and political significance following the defeat of the British in the American War of Independence in 1781.  From the 1780s chattel slavery was increasingly considered as something which caste a moral stain on the British Empire.   Whilst it was to take a number of decades for slavery to be fully denounced / abolished, the distancing from American slaveholders (rejecting their rejectors) as an ‘un-British’ state of affairs was of crucial importance.  This was in part because it resulted in the promotion of a new moral basis for the empire through the very ‘English’ value of ‘liberty’’.  In the late eighteenth century, the seeds of British Virtue and American Sin were sown and the critique of chattel slavery was the key symbolic index of this moral differentiation.   For the British, it was not just military power than had failed them in the American war of independence, but also the moral foundations of their global leadership.  Privileging English liberty and free market economics over slavery was one way of addressing this moral deficit.  Indeed, ‘English liberty’ (and the moral condemnation of slavery) and free trade was considered as something that could justify further imperial expansion around the globe, especially Africa.  In other words, anti-slavery advocacy provided a new form or ‘moral capital’ for the British Empire.  Critiquing slavery and critiquing the British Empire, then, are not necessarily the same thing.

British anti-slavery abolition

For Quakers such as John Woolman, who was writing in the 1750s, chattel slavery should be morally condemned because was inconsistent with Christian morality and undermined the possibilities of a universal Christian brotherhood.  Though providing strong moral and intellectual leadership, as well as being able to promulgate their ideas through the Quaker religious network, these and other early abolitionists were only moderately successful because they lacked access to political power.  The ultimately more successful bourgeois British anti-slavery movement, mobilised across 50 years from 1788-1838, may well have drawn upon increasing grass roots support against the slave trade, but they also were part of the establishment.   The British liberal anti-slavery abolitionists, such as Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, all benefitted from either aristocratic patronage, wealth and/or had access to the political elite.  It was these members of the British establishment who most strongly argued that chattel slavery stood against ‘English liberty’ and infringed upon basic British freedoms.  Such anti-slavery also differentiated the British from the Americans and appeared to reinstate a sense of ‘moral superiority’ over their former colony.  Yet, rather than being tied to emancipatory politics and praxis or calls for radical social transformation, the British anti-slavery abolitionists were reformers who were looking to strengthen the moral legitimacy of the current social, political and economic order.  In so doing they worked closely with the British State to achieve their aims.

The intimate connections between anti-slavery abolition and the emerging capitalist state included then a clear moral discourse challenging the most barbarous social institutions of that time and showing moral leadership to the new (industrialised) working classes.  The moral message was not just about the errors and vice of chattel slavery, but also about the importance of self-discipline, personal industry and engaging in what the anti-slavery abolitionists considered to be non-coercive labour – the capitalist labour market.  This was in part because of growing (inaccurate)  economic concerns among the ruling elite that the coerced labour of slavery was much less productive than ‘freely chosen’ labour of workers in the labour market and the increasing ideological influence of the free labour doctrines of political economists such as Francis Hutchenson.  Chattel slavery was deliberately isolated from other forms of labour exploitation and presented as a unique and immoral aberration across the British Empire.  The liberal, anti-slavery abolitionist ideology, highlighted the specificity of the misery of slavery, but in so doing deflected attention away from the inequities of the given social order, state racism and wider colonial abuses of power in the Empire.

It is important to note that the context of chattel slavery in Britain was different to the USA even before the defeat in the war of independence.  In a 1772 legal case, which considered whether JamesSomerset could be treated as a slave on British shores, prominent abolitionist Granville Sharp successfully argued that as vlleinage – the then only legal form of feudal human bondage in Britain – had fallen out of usage in the early 1500s if not before, chattel slavery was against both natural and English common law.  TheSomerset ruling was largely interpreted as meaning that chattel slavery was illegal in Britain, and whilst this was not actually the case, it did result in reinforcing popular mythologies of British freedom / English liberty as well as deterring many slaveholders from openly displaying their slaves in public or bringing new slaves into the country.  Popular support against slavery was also augmented by the extensive evidence compiled by the British anti-slavery abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who produced detailed accounts of the barbarous nature of the slave trade on his wider travels around the Empire.  By 1789 William Wilberforce had initiated an anti-slavery abolitionist campaign in Parliament, and whilst this in the long term proved decisive, the French Revolution of the same year and the slave rebellion in the French colony of Haiti initially poured cold water on this idea.  Yet the wheels of change had been irrevocably set in motion.

Toussaint Louverture, who was one of the leaders of the slave rebellion in the Republic of Haiti (Saint Domingue)

Ending chattel slavery but the unfreedom of free labour

By the 1830s chattel slavery had undoubtedly became the unacceptable face of labour exploitation, state racism and class domination in Britain and its empire. The Slave trade had been abolished in 1807 in Britain and the delayed introduction of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) brought an end to slavery in British Empire in 1838.  But during this this time, not only was there an intensification in the exploitation of ‘free labour’, but also a rise in penal servitude, which was to reach its zenith in Britain later that century with the ‘hard fare, hard bed and hard labour’ prison policies under the tenure of Edmund Frederick Du Cane.  Indeed, there proved to be nothing inconsistent between the promotion of the liberal ideology of anti-slavery and associated adherence to “English liberty” and the creation of dehumanising ‘reformed prisons’ grounded in legal repression, nor the rampant domination and exploitation of labourers through free market capitalism. 

The British anti-slavery abolitionist focus on a distinctly “British [English] freedom [liberty]” obscured the problem of ‘wage slavery’ and the appalling living and working conditions of people exercising their non-coerced ‘free labour’.  Early socialist activists, including The Chartists, challenged anti-slavery meetings in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, highlighting the close similarities between ‘wage slavery’ and ‘chattel slavery’.   Indeed, this was no more certain than in the overtly ‘coerced’ labour of the ‘free market’, where, for example, English sailors were impressed into the navy; Scottish coal miners were forced to remain in this line of work for life; and until 1875 certain workers could be sent to prison for quitting their jobs under the Master and Servant Acts

There are then clearly blurred boundaries between ‘coerced’ and ‘free’ labour.  Market capitalist societies are inevitably underscored by some form of coercion, but this takes a number of different forms – slavery, imprisonment, contracted labour exploitation or starvation – for if people do not ‘freely work’ they will die.  The differences between these forms of coercion are certainly important, and the nature and extent of coercion is clearly different between slavery and factory work for example, but still they operate on a continuum of coercion rather than as distinct entities. The beautiful idea of ‘freedom’ certainly is not well served in capitalist labour markets.

It is also worth remembering that there was no ending of penal servitude in the colonies of the British Empire post the ending of the slave trade.  Prisons continue into the present and transportation to British colonies continued well past the end of chattel slavery.  Further, the reformed prisons, since the early 1800s, have at various different times been places characterised by hard labour and are widely conceived in the critical penological literature as a state institution designed to discipline the labouring poor.  They perform an important remainder of the coercive power of state and what awaits those who do not adhere to the requirements of ‘free labour’. Apparent contradictions in the language and commitment of liberty and freedom of the anti-slavery abolitionists may in fact simply just be a further indication of the fact that the capitalist free market is underscored by ever-present coercion.  One of the leading ‘free labour’ advocates in the eighteenth century was the famous enlightenment thinker Francis Hutchenson.  In his System of Moral Philosophy (Volume 2), published in 1755, he argued that “perpetual labour” may be “justly adjudged” as an appropriate punishment for law breakers.  He goes on,

… no law could be more effectual to promote a general industry, and restrain sloth and idleness in the lower conditions, than making perpetual slavery of this sort the ordinary punishment of such idle vagrants, after proper admonitions and trials of temporary servitude, cannot be engaged to support themselves and their families by any useful labours.  Slavery would also be a proper punishment for such as by intemperance or other vices ruined themselves and families, and made them public burden.

Finally, a number of British anti-slavery abolitionists, including leading campaigners like William Wilberforce, Samuel Romily and Thomas Fowell Buxton became prominent penal reformers.  Indeed, William Wilberforce unsuccessfully acted as the advocate for Jeremy Bentham’s proposals for building a ‘Panopticon prison’ with the British Cabinet in the early 1800s. Penal abolitionism in Britain does not find its roots in the anti-slavery abolitionist movements of slavery, but perhaps penal reform does.

Frederick Douglas, a freed slave anti-slavery campaigner in the United States in the mid-1800s

Four Things We Can Learn

The above critique of the British anti-slavery abolitionists may be helpful to us at this given moment for the following four reasons.

First, it indicates that a focus on the critique of slavery is not the same as shining a light on the brutal harms of colonial power and the British Empire.  If the ending of slavery was a means of providing new moral capital for the expansion of the empire into Africa and elsewhere, then it is important that Black Lives Matter looks directly at the legacy and atrocities of the British Empire.  This perhaps means a shift towards some of the harder symbols of the British Empire, including the historical and contemporary constitution of the British State.

Second, it indicates that anti-slavery abolition can be co-opted and utilised in the interests of the capitalist state and inform the moral discourse of the ruling elite more broadly.  This shines an historical lens on the current moral capital that is accumulated through discourses of ‘modern slavery’.  It is important to note that like its historical predecessors, modern slavery focusses neither on penal servitude or the exploitation of free labourers.

Third, for penal abolitionists, it is essential that connections are made across a wide range of sites of exploitation, repression and domination.  The socialist critique of the anti-slavery movement in the 1830s and 1840s highlights the importance of exploring all forms of exploitation and close scrutiny of legal forms of coercion.  Penal abolitionism must then consider together the historical legacies and contemporary manifestations of state racism; the insidious masculinist bias within the law and broader society; and the profound exploitation of capitalist labour relations.

Fourth, that engagement with the political, social and economic elite will not deliver social justice and radical social and economic transformation unless it is strongly tied / connected to the ‘view from below’ and infused with socialist emancipatory politics and praxis.  What we can learn from the anti-slavery abolitionists is that when the ruling elite champion a given moral cause, it may well be for the ‘moral capital’ that can be transferred to them rather than an honest and noble intervention. 

There are anti-slavery abolitionists that we can take inspiration from in the present, but these are the men and women who won their freedom through pain, personal struggle and triumph.  It is the narrative of the slaves and former slaves that penal abolitionism should draw strength and it is their conceptualisation of freedom and liberty which should inspire abolitionists and anti-racist activists today.

SNC-Lavalin: Charges to settlement, have lessons been learned?

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Sharon Hartles and Liam Miles examine the significance of corporate criminality and leverage through the business activities of a Canadian multi-national company. Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from The Open University in December 2019 and is a member of HERC. Liam Miles is a Second Year BA (Hons) Criminology student at Birmingham City University.

Image: Courtesy of Sharon Hartles (adaption/remix of Wikimedia commons i, ii )

On the 19th of February 2015, corruption and fraud charges were filed in the Court of Quebec by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) against SNC-Lavalin and two of its divisions (SNC-Lavalin Construction Inc. and its subsidiary, SNC-Lavalin International Inc.). The alleged criminal acts took place between August 2001 and September 2011 and consisted of an exchange of ‘almost $47.9 million to Libyan government officials to use their positions to influence government decisions’ and defrauding ‘the Libyan government and other entities of “property, money or valuable security or service” worth almost $129.8 million.’  According to a statement released by RCMP, the then Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud, “The charges laid today demonstrate how the RCMP continues to support Canada’s international commitments and safeguard its integrity and reputation,” It will come as no surprise to note that the charges and statement were met with a counter public statement issued by SNC-Lavalin in which it declared the charges to be without merit.

The potential harm and wider-reaching ramifications which a guilty verdict would have incurred should not be understated. If SNC-Lavalin Group were to have been convicted of offences under the Canadian Criminal Code (or under these acts: Competition Act, Controlled Drugs and Substance Act, Corruption of Foreign Officials Act, Excise Tax Act, Financial Administration Act, Income Tax Act, Lobbying Act) they would have been ineligible to compete for federal contracts for ten years. In line with the Integrity framework regime which was introduced in 2015, a government–wide ban prohibits federal departments from doing business for a period of 10 years with companies who have engaged in improper conduct. This 10 year ban is in place to ensure the Canadian government does business only with ethical suppliers in Canada and abroad.

In 2018, SNC-Lavalin was ranked Canada’s top contractor, for the third consecutive year, generating around US$9.8 billion in revenue. Such an assertion is supported by SNC-Lavalin’s annual reports financial highlights for  2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and  2015. On its 2015 report as at 31st December, SNC-Lavalin declared a figure of 36,754, as the number of people employed, of which around 9,000 of these reside in Canada. With this in mind, it is clearer to comprehend the potential global harm a conviction outcome would have set in motion and therefore why this may have been deemed not to be in the best interests of the Canadian government. With that noted an alternative arrangement to a 10 year ban had to be devised.

A solution presented itself in the form of a remediation agreement, also known as a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) which defers or suspends criminal charges. However, in 2015, when the charges were filed against SNC-Lavalin Group remediation agreements did not exist within Canadian law. Taking that into account, in 2016 SNC-Lavalin successfully lobbied government officials, and the direct result was that as part of the 2018 federal budget, Canada’s Criminal Code was amended to encompass the newly adopted DPA regime for corporate wrongdoing in Canada. This truth cannot be dismissed because it is reinforced in the report published in August 2019, by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion: Ethics Commissioner’s report on Justin Trudeau and the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

The Dion Ethics Report sheds light on the political interference which surrounded the issuing of a DPA for SNC-Lavalin Group. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of the Attorney General (2015–2019) stood before the Justice Committee on the 27th February 2019, and stated that between September and December 2018, she “experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with SNC Lavalin”.

According to the Dion report findings, the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau (2015 – present) and members of his party had breached section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act. This conclusion was reached with evidence that detailed how the former clerk to the Privy Council Michael Wernick, (2016- 2019) allegedly telephoned Jody Wilson-Raybould on the 19th December 2018 and stated “The Prime Minister wants to be able to say that he has tried everything he can within the legitimate tool box, so he is quite determined, quite firm, but wants to know why the DPA route which parliament provided for isn’t being used”. The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion concluded that Justin Trudeau made attempts to influence the Attorney General’s Department to politically steer the case against SNC-Lavalin to see a remediation agreement achieved. In his defence, Justin Trudeau maintained that he was looking to protect Canadian jobs after the company warned a conviction at trial risked damaging its business.

What is of interest is that in November 2018, SNC-Lavalin was categorised in the top 27% of all companies registered in the Corporate Political Engagement Index as being a key government stakeholder and donator to the Trudeau administration. Since the genesis of the prosecution case against SNC-Lavalin in 2017, the company exerted a very broad lobbying effort to secure legal and political assistance. Such assistance extended beyond the lobbying of numerous staff within the Prime Minister’s Office (and the Prime Minister himself) and went as far as the Ministers from the Departments of Finance, International Trade, Innovation, Science and Economic development. In the words of criminologist John Muncie in his work titled Decriminalising Criminology this may evidence ‘the legal transgressions routinely employed by those wielding political and economic power and their ability to deny or conceal the harms they unleash under the protection of the law.’

On the 18th December 2019, SNC-Lavalin pleaded guilty to fraud over its Libyan activities. Its construction division pleaded guilty to a single count of fraud. All other charges were withdrawn in the settlement. The outcome of which was a probation order and a fine amounting to C$280m ($213m; £163m) to be paid over five years and a three-year probation order. SNC-Lavalin stated:

  • ‘It had cleaned house and changed its ways since 2012.’
  • ‘openly lobbied for an agreement that would allow it to avoid prosecution and instead face alternative penalties’
  • ‘admitted that over the course of a decade almost C$48m ($36m; £28m) was directed to Saadi Gaddafi’’

In the aftermath of the SNC-Lavalin and the political scandal, damage has been done. On the one hand, by midday, the date the settlement of criminal charges was imposed, trading had resumed and SNC-Lavalin shares jumped 20 per cent to C$29.01. On the other hand, SNC-Lavalin reported a 6% drop in revenue during the first six months of 2019 to US$3.5bn from US$3.8bn in the corresponding period. This drop in revenue is a side-effect of what Ian Edwards (who was promoted to the post of interim president and chief executive officer of SNC-Lavalin from the 11th June 2019) referred to as a ‘really tough quarter’. Furthermore, data generated by the 2019 Transparency International index of global corruption, indicates that Canada has slipped and now ranks 12th on the list of 180 countries assessed. This is a decrease of three places compared to the 2018 index.

SNC-Lavalin avoided being barred from applying for lucrative federal contracts, meaning it has been able to return to generating billions in profit and billions in revenue. There is no disputing that SNC-Lavalin is one of the world’s largest engineering and construction companies and in line with its Annual Report 2019, as at 31st December 2019, it employed 47,000 people around the world. Having said that, this provides a broader understanding of SNC-Lavalin’s impact within an economic and social context and why it has a duty to enhance society. By investing in Corporate Social Responsibility and implementing this into practice, corporate citizenship can benefit society whilst simultaneously boosting companies reputations. To safeguard its world-wide workforce it is essential SNC-Lavalin be mindful of the consequences of its future profiteering endeavors. … Only time will tell if lessons have been learned and if SNC-Lavalin has truly drawn a line under its corporate-wrongdoing.

This article was originally published by the British Society of Criminology on 9 June 2020 at:

Grenfell, three years on: let us not forget

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Steve Tombs marks the third anniversary of the fire at Grenfell Tower which killed 72 people and changed forever the lives of many more; he does so through the lens of the ongoing health crisis and the renewed critical attention to manifestations of structural racism. Steve Tombs is a Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

Almost exactly three years ago to this day, in the first hour of 14th June, 2017, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London, killing at least at least 72 people. Almost immediately the atrocity was revealed as no accident. In fact, it had long been foretold by the residents of the tower themselves, via the Grenfell Action Group, most chillingly in the all-too-prescient blog of November 2016, seven months before the fire, which was headed with the warning, KCTMO – Playing with fire! The blog was the latest in a long line of attempts by the residents to have their health and safety concerns taken seriously, not least during what proved to be the fatal refurbishment of their tower-block when the decision was taken to replace fire-resistant zinc cladding in the refurbishment contract “with cheaper aluminium panels to save £293,368”. This cost-cutting measure was to turn the tower into something resembling a kiln when a fire began in a fourth floor flat, most likely as a result of a faulty Hotpoint fridge freezer, on 14th June, 2017.

In the aftermath of the fire, many proclaimed Grenfell as a “never-again” moment. Housing policy, regulation, fire safety, all would change irrevocably. The harshness of neo-liberalism would be shed. White, class power might even recognise the worth of poor, black, minority ethnic and marginalised populations, dumped in poorly maintained social housing. It was a moment upon which the Prime Minster at the time, Theresa May, was to reflect as she resigned her position two years later, not as a result of her palpable failures in the wake of the atrocity, of course, but a consequence of internecine warfare within the Conservative Party. Thus, with no hint of irony, May stated that,

“the unique privilege of this office is to use this platform to give a voice to the voiceless, to fight the burning injustices that still scar our society … And that is why I set up the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower – to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten. Because this country is a Union. Not just a family of four nations. But a union of people – all of us. Whatever our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love. We stand together.”

But now, three years after the fire, commemorated as resistance erupts across the Global North in the face of the most searing manifestations of structural racism and simultaneously viewed through themirror of a pandemic which has, on official figures, taken close to half a million lives worldwide, the shattering effects of class and ethnic inequality which framed Grenfell are more visible and more harshly experienced. In the UK alone, at the time of writing, almost 64,000 deaths in the UK are attributed to coronavirus in the period since ‘lockdown’ began – a disproportionate number of whom are, as we know, of Black, Asian and minority ethnic origin. Just weeks into the pandemic, as the images of health and care workers – the nurses, doctors, porters and cleaners – who had died began to be broadcast, it was already obvious that black and brown faces were on the frontline in the unfolding health crisis.

And in early May, the Office for National Statistics confirmed what we had been seeing with our own eyes. First, the ONS revealed that black Britons were “more than four times more likely to die from the disease than white people, with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis almost twice as likely to die compared to the white majority”. And again death was linked to housing: for these were also people living in overcrowded households – 30% of Bangladeshi, 16% of Pakistani and 12% of black households in England were officially over-crowded compared with 2% of white households. And then days later, further ONS data showed that those in “low paid, manual jobs” were “four times more likely to die from the virus than men in professional occupations, while women working as carers are twice as likely to die as those in professional and technical roles”. Security guards, health and care workers, construction workers, plant operatives, cleaners, taxi drivers, bus drivers, chefs and retail workers – those who were forced to work through ‘lockdown’– were at far greater risk of dying. These are the members of our community who were more exposed, less protected, whose lives didn’t quite count enough – just as one resident who stood outside Grenfell tower had said as he watched it burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count.”

Despite formally abandoning their now denied ‘herd immunity’ policy, this Government had clearly decided that some lives are disposable. Viruses, just like fires, do discriminate. And the politics behind the virus-discrimination is not dissimilar to the fire-discrimination which killed at Grenfell. It is a politics of class contempt and of racism. In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, it is “the state-sanctioned … group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” or, as Friedrich Engels termed it, social murder.

So as we endure the relentless, callous mendacity which passes for daily Government press briefings on the trajectory of the health crisis, interspersed with shrill cries of offence as the trophies of our glorious imperial past are toppled, let us not forget the preventable, mass killing at Grenfell 3 years ago more or less to this day. Meanwhile, three years later, nothing about Grenfell has been settled. Nothing has been resolved. There is no ‘closure’.

So, three years on…

Let us not forget that those who survived the fire have been retraumatised by the fear, loss and discrimination associated with the pandemic and many, too, by the weight of the knee of the powerful pushing down on their necks.

Let us not forget those who, notwithstanding years of broken promises, half-truths and lies from the mouths of the powerful, remain in temporary accommodation, still displaced from their homes, their communities, their lives.  

Let us not forget those who lost their jobs and their businesses as a result of the fire.

Let us not forget the thousands across the UK still fighting to have similar flammable cladding removed.

Let us not forget the inquiry which, two years since it began, is now halted and has barely begun to determine responsibility.

Let us not forget that those who stand accused for their role leading up to or in the aftermath of the fire: the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation and the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government, all of which bore some responsibility for the conditions in which the residents of the Tower were living and for the gross failures in response to the fire; Arconic, Artelia, Celotex, Harley Facades, Kingspan, Max Fordham, Rydon, Studio E and the countless other private sector companies involved in the design, oversight and undertaking of the tower’s refurbishment, as well as Whirlpool, the manufacturer of the fridge freezer which sparked the fire; Public Health England and the Environment Agency for their consistent failures to respond to residents’ concerns about “significant environmental contamination”, including from carcinogens, in the years following the fire; and that long line of politicians of all main parties who had boasted of a bonfire of regulation, as well as Governments which had imposed austerity so that fire services and all forms of local authority oversight were drastically cut-back, while health and social services were so undermined as to be unable to meet the routine needs of a population, let alone respond effectively to emergencies.

Today, almost three years to the day after Grenfell, let us not forget the emotional, psychological, physical, cultural and financial harms that continue to be suffered – often unseen, unspoken, unrecognised, yet intensely felt by thousands of bereaved, dispossessed, scarred men, women and children as a result of what happened on 14 June 2017.

Let us not forget the 72 lives avoidably lost in that fire.

Until there is truth, justice and accountability, let us not forget.

In search of the Covid–secure workplace

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Steve Tombs queries the protections offered by Government regulators to the health and safety of workers as they are forced back into work after the coronavirus lockdown. Steve Tombs is a Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

Whether or not Boris Johnson is a consistent, conscious liar is not perhaps for me to judge – though I do have an opinion. But his tendency to bat away significant and awkward questions with an off-the-cuff response which he knows sounds about right but to which it is clear he has given little or no thought is apparent to anyone who has paid any attention to his political posturings.

So having announced on Sunday that workers who could not work from home would be “actively encouraged” to return to work the following day (later revised to Wednesday), when he was asked about plans to make workplaces safe in the Commons on Monday, his answer was immediate: the Government would publish rules for making businesses “Covid-19 secure” and these would be enforced by the Health and Safety Executive, who would be “having spot inspections to ensure businesses are keeping employees safe”. He then pledged £14m of additional funding to support the HSE for this task. Sorted. Job’s a good ‘un. Johnson stands with working people again. Still got their backs. Still all in this together. Aren’t we?

Well, no. Much could be said but let me add a few observations from the real world of data and evidence to the Government’s fantasises of responsible COVID-secure workplaces overseen by a protective regulatory agency ready “to police workplace practices as the economy gradually reopens

The absence of enforcement capacity

The first thing to say is that the HSE is hardly well-placed to undertake the inspections to which Johnson has pointed. Giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee on 4 March 2020, Martin Temple, Chair, HSE, noted that,

“One of the interesting things, just to give you a sense of things, is that the number of inspections we do is relatively small. We do 20,000-odd or something of that order and we have 5.5 million duty holders”.

Just stop there, and do the maths. On the basis of his own figures, 20,000 annual inspections of a regulated population of 5.5 million duty holders, employers who manage and control workplaces, the HSE’s Chair has revealed that the statistical likelihood of any one duty holder being inspected by the HSE in any one year is one in 275. Or, to put that slightly differently, the statistically average employer can expect to see an inspector once every 275 years. Even accepting that some workplaces will include several duty holders – notably, for example, larger construction sites – so that the statistical average is reduced, the HSE Chair’s data makes it hard to see how COVID-compliance is to be furthered by spot checks.

In fact, HSE inspectors – and their local authority counterparts, health and safety Environmental Health Officers (EHOs), who in theory will share a significant burden of ‘ensuring’ COVID-compliance at work – have never seen themselves as a police force for industry, nor really as bodies having or needing to have a significant inspectorial presence. But that presence has certainly declined over recent years. Figures placed in the House of Commons (HoC) library at the end of last month showed that for HSE:

  • total staffing figures had fallen from 3,702 to 2,501 from 2009-10 to 2017-18
  • the number of inspectors dropped from 1,495 to 978

Little wonder, perhaps, that by 2018/19 there were just 361 convictions for health and safety offences, a fall of 40% from 2014/15, this itself following ten years of decline from 2003/04.

All of these clear downward trends are partly, if not wholly, explained by significant reductions in funding for HSE and, through local authorities, for local authority enforcement. For HSE, the HoC Library figures note that funding fell from £239m in 2009-10 to £135m in 2017-18. Local authority regulatory capacities have been even more diminished, to the extent that in my own research I found significant sized Local Authorities such as Liverpool without one single dedicated health and safety inspector.

But this is not just about money or personnel or enforcement actions. We can also look at other reasons why HSE and local authorities are unlikely to be able to protect workers as they are forced back into contaminated workplaces.
Source: GMB, at

Where Law Enforcement is Against the Law

For one thing, changes in the law prevent them from so doing. Two are crucial.

The Primary Authority (PA) scheme – mushrooming across the UK – effectively prevents local authority enforcement actions on health and safety against companies signed up to the scheme. Under PA, a company operating across more than one local authority area enters an agreement with one specific local authority to regulate all of its sites, nationally. This contract buys for the company the absence of effective oversight in the vast majority of its sites. These can be visited in other areas, but any enforcement action needs to be undertaken through the local authority which is the PA. The PA scheme effectively serves as the most robust protection for employers against health and safety law enforcement. It needs to be scrapped.

Further, many workplaces simply cannot be inspected proactively – that is, for the kind of spot checks referred to by Johnson. This is a matter of law. In 2011, the DWP identified whole sectors of economic activity as ‘low risk’ and thereby prohibit proactive inspections at local authority and then at HSE level. No rationale for what constituted ‘low-risk’ was provided, and an analysis by Hazards magazine found that of the 258 reported worker fatalities in the 19 months which followed the change, 53% were in low-risk sectors. This decision must be reversed.

The record so far …

Indeed, the facts are that workers have not been protected throughout the coronavirus outbreak to date. Certainly the HSE has consistently stepped back from even attempting to do so, as Phil James has recently documented.

But as Johnson reminded the house, many groups of workers have had to work throughout the lockdown. Key, essential workers, a group that we now recognise as covering not just health, social care and emergency service staff, but also transport and shop workers, those in the food supply chain, cleaners, posties, refuse collectors, and, albeit less celebrated, workers in consecution, security and the diffuse areas of the gig economy. And these have not been protected by HSE nor local authorities even where social distancing is patently and consistently ignored. Building workers have maintained a heroic ‘shut the sites’ campaign through the seven weeks of the lockdown to seek to protect worker and community safety.

But we learnt only this week that “People in low-paid, manual jobs  … are four times more likely to die from the virus than men in professional occupations, while women working as carers are twice as likely to die as those in professional and technical roles”. Security guards, care workers, construction workers, plant operatives, cleaners, taxi drivers, bus drivers, chefs and retail workers – those who have worked through the lockdown or are being forced back to work now in far greater numbers – are all at a greater risk of dying, according to the Office for National Statistics.

So we know that working people have not been protected through the health crisis – quite the opposite. There is no reason to believe they will be as the virus continues to circulate through our communities. £14 million and the vacuous threat of spot-checks don’t cut it.

Ultimately, it’s a truth that the best protection for workers is the strength of collective action by workers themselves – and it seems likely that coming weeks and months will see further widespread examples of the wildcat strikes and walkouts witnessed during the least seven months, even as the mainstream media have ignored these. But it is crucial for workers to have the law on their side – so we need clear legal protection for workers to exercise their right to refuse to engage in work that threatens the spread of the virus through workplaces and communities.

This was originally posted by the Institute of Employment Rights on 13 May 2020 at

Lessons from COVID-19: How transformative justice and mutual aid can help to address harm in communities

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Julia Downes discusses what mutual aid groups could do to support those made more vulnerable to interpersonal and state violence during COVID-19. Julia Downes is a Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Image credit: Jack Moreh via Freerange Stock.

Download the guide ‘How to Address Harm: A Guide for COVID-19 Mutual Aid Groups’ for information, tools and practical tips to help individuals and mutual aid groups.

When UK government policy swung to a police-enforced lockdown on 23 March we were told that if we ‘stay home’ we would ‘protect the NHS and save lives’. But staying at home does not make everyone safe.  

Police-enforced lockdown measures, including social distancing and isolation, reinforce tactics of coercive control used by abusers to deprive partners, friends, family and household members of social support and routes to safety. The option to report someone to the police for a breach of lockdown measures now exists in the abusive toolkit. For some – particularly working class, Black and minoritised, LGBTQI, disabled people, sex workers, young people and people with insecure immigration status – interpersonal violence is inflated by state violence. Police involvement is much more likely to result in arrest, prison, detention and deportation.  

In the first four weeks of lockdown domestic violence killings have doubled with 13 women and 4 children believed to have been killed. Specialist support services have reported a surge in people accessing help; on 9 April Refuge reported a 700% increase in visits to their National Domestic Abuse Helpline website. Much attention has focused on adequately funding specialist services that have been forced to close or adapt and the promise of new carceral powers (that rely on police and prisons) in the upcoming domestic abuse bill. However, most people who experience violence or abuse are more likely to confide in someone they know and trust, like a friend, work colleague, neighbour or family member, rather than call the police or a helpline. In this moment of lockdown, amid a reported surge in neighbourliness, what is the potential for local community members to intervene?  

Whilst putting victims and survivors safely in touch with specialist support services is crucial, lessons from the transformative justice movement open up the possibilities for creative responses. This involves shifting our imagination beyond carceral responses to gender-based violence that can dominate the work of some specialist support services. For instance, research led by Aviah Sarah Day highlighted how partnerships between women’s sector organisations and the criminal justice system increased the vulnerability of domestic violence survivors with insecure immigration status as well as survivors who are subject to counter-allegations.  

In contrast, transformative justice approaches, as explained by Mia Mingus from the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, seek to build non-punitive responses to violence and harm that do not rely on the state and aim to cultivate community survival, safety, accountability, resilience, and care. With many of us signing up to help people in our neighbourhoods mutual aid has become a buzzword in lockdown Britain. But what could mutual aid groups be doing to support those made more vulnerable to interpersonal and state violence during COVID-19? 

Before the lockdown new local COVID-19 mutual aid groups began to spring up across the country. There are now over 3000 local groups across the UK. These groups point to the power within local communities who can turn to each other for safety and care when the state is unable or unwilling to provide for, or protect, all citizens.  

Cultivating safety and care in this way is not new and, as Dean Spade has argued, mutual aid has been a long-term survival strategy for marginalised communities. For example, in the UK, Queercare have long been providing community care for queer and trans people and Mutual Aid UK is an intersectional support group for the most marginalised people, particularly queer and trans people of colour. Crucially these projects focus on providing care, safety and support outside state institutions due to lived experience of state failures and structural violence.  

However, the emergence of COVID-19 mutual aid groups has brought people together from very different backgrounds and starting points to respond to systemic government failures in pandemic preparations i.e. to provide access to PPEfood and testing. It is not uncommon to find local councillors, police officers, non-governmental and charity sector workers alongside anti-authoritarian organisers and members of marginalised groups, trying to find ways to organise together in online spaces. This is a difficult experiment in which disagreement and conflict over the boundaries of ‘politics’ and ‘ideology’, what is in the ‘best interests’ of others, and harmful impositions of social privilege can lead to the exclusion of the most vulnerable. The learning here is in how we stay in and build community with each other. 

This groundswell of newly emergent mutual aid groups also opens up exciting possibilities for neighbourhoods to work together to navigate disagreement, conflict and harm in new ways right where it is happening: in the street, homes and in local groups. For example, the harms of new policing powers were responded to in a poster, which encourages neighbours to prioritise care and compassion over calling the police to report a suspected breach of lockdown conditions. Cradle Community have developed guidance on how to be an active bystander during lockdown conditions. Sisters Uncut have demystified the question ‘Why aren’t people just staying at home?’ and made a powerful statement about the structural and interpersonal violence that domestic violence victims are facing during lockdown.  

Transformative justice tools, like pod mapping (created by Mia Mingus) offer practical steps to develop a collective response to interpersonal violence. The idea here is for us to identify who our ‘pod people’ are (who we can rely on for help when we are harmed and when we harm others) and cultivate a network or ‘pod’ to address low-level conflicts before they escalate into harm and violence. Transformative justice also encourages us to identify and dismantle the underlying conditions that enable violence to happen in the first place. This is about shifting the social conditions that make some people more vulnerable to interpersonal violence than others. Universal basic income, safe and secure housing, well-funded public healthcare and workers’ rights – all things recognised as essential for collective survival during COVID-19, are crucial in the long-term fight to end gender-based violence. 

The lessons being learned in practices of transformative justice and mutual aid should be at the heart of an intersectional movement to end gender-based violence. Progress has been made to articulate this vision elsewhere, evident in the work of Mariame Kaba and Building Accountable Communities in the United States, Undercurrent in Australia and What Really Makes us Safe? in Germany. However many people do not yet know about this work or how it is being, or could be, done in British neighbourhoods. This is why ‘How to Address Harm: A Guide for COVID-19 Mutual Aid Groups’ has been created. This guide offers information, tools and practical tips to help individuals and mutual aid groups to learn from, centre and stand in solidarity with groups who survive at the intersection of state and interpersonal violence during this moment of COVID-19.  

As Arundhati Roy recently articulated: the pandemic is a portal. The world will never be the same; transformative justice and mutual aid offer hopeful blueprints of a world in which gender-based violence can finally become unthinkable.

This article was originally published on the Transforming Society blog on the 7th of May, at:

Coping in Isolation: Time to Think – insights from Long Kesh for Lockdown 2020

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Gabi Kent discusses the development of the new OpenLearn course, based around the Time to Think archive. Gabi Kent is a Lecturer in Knowledge Exchange at The Open University.

Rainbow Symbols photo © Gabi Kent, 2020

‘People may be on their own, but they are not alone’
(Michael, Irish Republican ex-prisoner, April 2020)

Since January 2020, Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has rapidly defined our ‘new normal’. People worldwide are facing prolonged periods in enforced social isolation or confinement, with no certainty of when this will end. Living in this new normal, you may wonder how others adjusted to enforced isolation and confinement in the past and what solace they may offer.

Coping in Isolation: Time to Think, a new free Open University (OU) short course on OpenLearn, offers insights on coping from OU graduates who studied while imprisoned during the years of conflict in and about Northern Ireland. Such men and women spent many years in isolation and confinement in prison as a result of their role in the conflict. Some lived for years in small political groups in huts in prison compounds. Others spent years in individual cells, including long periods in almost total isolation while engaged in political protests. Many used their time to develop new skills to help create a more peaceful society.

In this short introductory level course, David and Michael, two OU graduates, reflect on the current COVID-19 lockdown and their study experiences while imprisoned in The Maze and Long Kesh prison. Both men offer insights on ways to adjust to the current pressures facing people across the globe. This course also includes resources from the Open University’s digital archive Time to Think. This unique oral history archivecontains the stories of Loyalist and Republican OU students as well as OU tutors and office staff, prison education staff and prison governors reflecting on their educational journeys in British and Irish prisons during the years of conflict. You can explore the archive at this link: Time to Think archive.

A picture containing drawing, fence

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Artwork by David Smyth, 2019

Today Time to Think is both an oral history archive and ongoing collaboration for teaching, research, impact and knowledge exchange between The OU (OU in Ireland, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and The OU Library) and people who participated in the Time to Think archive. I am part of the core Time to Think team.

The idea for this course came from a recent conversation with Jenny Meegan, an OU Ireland colleague and one of the founders of the Time to Think archive. Jenny is retired now and isolating at her home in Belfast. In this conversation, we were reflecting on our feelings about lockdown and on the experiences of Loyalist and Republican participants in the OU Time to Think archive, who lived through confinement in the past. In this context, the term Loyalist refers to those who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Historically, Loyalists supported the use of physical force where necessary to defend the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The term Republican refers to those who seek to end the partition of Ireland and who wish to bring about the reunification of the island of Ireland. Republicans have also historically supported the use of physical force where necessary to achieve this.

Approximately 15,000 Republicans and between 5,000 and 10,000 Loyalists were imprisoned during the thirty-year conflict (1969 to 2000).  Within this complex conflict Loyalists and Republicans were bitter opponents. A number, however, found points of connection while in prison, including through their OU study, and some went on to play a significant role in the peace process. In 1998 The Good Friday Agreement was signed between Loyalists, Republicans, the British and Irish states and other parties to the conflict, providing a political solution to this long and bloody conflict. Upon their releases, some of these OU students became artists, academics, teachers or community workers. Others are political leaders at community, city/district or governmental level. Many are engaged in conflict transformation and peacebuilding work. Through the Time to Think project and my own PhD research, I work with a number of these Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoners and former OU students.

At the end of our conversation that March morning in the early days of lockdown, Jenny made a bold proposition. ‘Let’s do a course’ said Jenny. ‘Why not’, said I. I wrote a quick proposal and with agreement from of our Time to Think colleagues we approached key people in our Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoner networks to float the idea of a free short course in response to Covid-19. The reply was immediate and positive.  

In a sense this was a timely proposition. We (my OU and Time to Think colleague Philip O’Sullivan and I) were already in discussion with people in these networks about co-producing short courses for the OU, as part of the Time to Think knowledge exchange project. Now we had a topic around which to pilot this idea and to develop our collaborative approach to teaching. The aim was an accessible course, co-produced with archive participants, bringing together and building on learnings from the archive to address contemporary local or global issues.

With support from John D’Arcy (Director, OU in Ireland), the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the OpenLearn team, the Time to Think team embarked on producing this fast turn-around course.  Our co-producers were two OU graduates, Michael, an Irish Republican, and David, a Loyalist, both of whom were imprisoned as a result of the conflict.

David in the Compounds (left) and Michael in the H Blocks (right), by David Smyth, 2020

Between them, David and Michael spent 28 years in confinement or isolation in the Compounds and H Blocks of the Maze and Long Kesh prison. The course draws on new interviews and conversations recorded remotely between David and Michael in April 2020. In these audio recordings they reflect on their past experiences and offer insights and support for people living through isolation under Covid-19 today. David also created the original artwork featured in this course. Both men are contributors to The Open University’s Time to Think archive.

We held regular production meetings via Skype to brainstorm and work through the course structure and content. Our ground rules were mutual respect and kindness! This was a learning experience for us all and we understood that we would have to work quickly and adapt and refine our methods as we went along. We were also conscious of the psychological impacts of living through a pandemic and our responsibilities to our learners. With this in mind we chose a critical reader- Stephen Robinson – from the School of Psychology for his expertise.

Our aim with this course was to provide a free open access resource, that would benefit a wide range of people locally and globally during these difficult times. This is why we chose OpenLearn, The OU’s free learning platform. Coping in isolation is an introductory level course which guides people through the transition from freedom to lockdown or confinement. It introduces strategies and structures for using time in lockdown creatively and constructively, and to reframe this situation to become agents of positive change.  It also offers insights from the stories of David, Michael and a number of other Loyalist and Republican OU students from the Time to Think archive. The course takes 3-6 hours to work through, depending on how much personal reflection you want to do. 

For me, having worked with two people who faced indeterminate life sentences and came out the other side, the lessons that linger are:

  • the creativity and adaptability of the human spirit when faced with extreme situations
  • the power of our imaginations to find new ways of seeing the world and of changing it
  • the importance of positivity and of communal support (in its many forms) when living with uncertainty to help us along the way and to reach the other side.

As David commented during the making of this course: ‘Remember, every road, no matter how long has an end. So, use this time well to prepare for then.’

Why not try Coping with isolation: Time to Think It’s now live at:

This free OpenLearnshort course written by Gabi Kent and co-produced by Michael, an Open University graduate and Republican ex-prisoner, David, an Open University graduate and Loyalist ex-prisoner, Gabi Kent, Jenny Meegan, Philip O’Sullivan, Colette Hughes and Ruth Cammies from The Open University’s Time to Think project. The critical reader was Stephen Robinson, Lecturer and Staff Tutor, School of Psychology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Hannah Parish was our excellent OpenLearn editor. Thanks to Hannah and her team including Gary Windows for all his work on the audio assets and Alma Hales on rights clearance.


This Blog is solely the view of the author.

Artwork courtesy of David Smyth © The Open University’s Time to Think Digital Archive Re-use is not permitted without permission. Contact:

Police and public relations during the COVID-19 outbreak

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Jim Turner and Camilla Elphick discuss the potential for public-police conflict, and the need for mutual public-police trust and solidarity, in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. Jim Turner is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology and Camilla Elphick is a post-doctoral Research Associate in Psychology, both at The Open University.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the UK government has passed the Coronavirus Act 2020. Secondary legislation has also been introduced across the four nations of the UK in the form of Health Protection Regulations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These laws, which are intended to limit the spread and severity of the Covid-19 disease outbreak, represent a substantial curtailment of civil liberties, particularly the freedom of movement and the freedom of assembly. Although these are health protection laws, not public order laws, it nonetheless falls to the police (as well as certain other relevant authorities) to enforce them. There is also, as is often the case, a certain amount of ‘grey area’ in the new laws. In particular, the sections restricting freedom of movement state that people can only leave their homes if they have a ‘reasonable excuse’, with a list of examples of what count as reasonable excuses. This list, however, is non-exhaustive (the Regulations say that reasonable excuse ‘includes’ the listed activities, not that it is limited to them), meaning that it ultimately falls to the courts, and in the first instance the police, to decide what is ‘reasonable’. This has the potential to bring the police into direct conflict with the general population.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK” by Tim Dennell is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

Public-police conflict

In the first few weeks of the new laws being in place, many such conflicts have occurred, often being reported in the media. Some of these conflicts were clear examples of police over-reach, such as the case of Marie Dinou, who was arrested, convicted in her absence in a magistrates court, and fined for breaching the Coronavirus Act 2020. An appeal court later overturned this conviction, finding that Ms Dinou had been ‘incorrectly charged’ – effectively, Ms Dinou had been arrested and imprisoned by the police for two days for a crime that does not exist in law. Other, less serious, examples include a police officer telling a man in Rotherham that he could not be out in his front garden (despite Section 6 (3) of the Regulations covering England specifically stating that the garden is part of the home), the much-publicised decision by police to try to ban walkers from the Peak District (despite exercise being specifically permitted in the Regulations, with no restrictions given on which locations people can use for exercise), and even reports that officers were trying to stop the sale of ‘non-essential’ Easter eggs.

In other cases the police have acted much more within the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new laws. For example, while the Regulations say that exercise is a ‘reasonable excuse’ they do not say whether or not it is a ‘reasonable excuse’ to travel somewhere for exercise. Police forces have generally taken a fairly moderate view of this, considering short distance travel to be reasonable but taking the view that very long distance travel is unreasonable. It is, of course, important to note that some members of the general public have been breaching the new laws in ways that the police must act against in order to protect public health, such as holding house parties. It is also important to remember that conflicts between the police and the public go both ways, and there have been cases of officers being attacked for enforcing the new laws.

Public-police trust

As the COVID-19 situation goes on, the need for the police to enforce these ‘social distancing’ restrictions will continue. This highlights a tension in the public-police relationship, which is that sometimes the public want the police’s involvement in their lives and sometimes they do not. To give an example: nobody likes to see the police in their rear-view mirror when they’re driving, but everybody wants to see the police arrive on scene after a major incident such as a terrorist attack. Despite the tone of much of the media coverage to date, it is not yet clear whether the COVID-19 restrictions on individual freedoms, and the police enforcement of those restrictions, is welcomed or resented by the general public overall. Concerns about the UK moving towards becoming a ‘police state’ have been raised since COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic, particularly in independent media (e.g. this article from before the new police powers were passed). Never have Peel’s (1929) nine principles of policing felt more relevant, as they propose a philosophy of policing derived from public cooperation with the police rather than fear or force.

Academic research has shown that there is a robust association between the public’s perception of the police as trustworthy and the public’s willingness to cooperate with the police. It has therefore always been in the general public interest for the police to fulfil their roles in a way that engenders trust among the public, but this has become urgent since the spread of COVID-19. Even in usual life, policing efforts can be hampered by things such as inequality, prejudice, or perceived lack of fairness and consistency. These factors can contribute to a lack of public trust in the police and a reluctance to collaborate or cooperate with them. In the current situation, these factors can be seen in issues such as the over-representation of ethnic minority groups in Covid-19 cases, prejudice against ethnic groups (e.g. some racist attacks have been linked to the outbreak), and a lack of clarity in the Regulations (as noted above). Given this context, the difficulties that the police face in enforcing the restrictions might well be amplified.

One way to foster trust is to build shared identities between police and citizens, as this can increase social solidarity between them and encourage citizens to cooperate. Such a shared identity may assist the police in their efforts to keep citizens safe during this time of social distancing. Indeed, this sense of social solidarity is built into Peel’s nine principles of policing: the seventh principle includes the concept ‘that the police are the public and that the public are the police’. This principle does, of course, require both the police and the public to uphold it – and, in a difficult time like this, it could get strained.

’Ello ‘ello ‘ello” by Miles Metcalfe is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Note: this is a stock image, not a photograph of police enforcing the new coronavirus regulations)

How the police have responded

The College of Policing, in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, have issued guidance to police forces on what they should and should not consider to be a ‘reasonable excuse’ when enforcing the new laws. These guidelines are, of course, not the law – they are an attempt to fill in some of the ‘grey areas’, provide some clarity to both the police and the public, and reduce the likelihood of conflict between the police and the public. By being open with the public in this way, the police can help build the sense of trust and social solidarity that is needed for them to effectively protect the public.

How the public can respond

We suggest keeping in mind two important aspects of the current situation. The first is that, like all keyworkers, the police cannot simply stay at home (unless they show symptoms of illness) and are therefore at increased risk of catching COVID-19 themselves as they continue to work. This means that they have a vested interest in reducing the spread of COVID-19, for their own sake, and the sake of their families, as well as the community as a whole. The second is that, like the police, the general public can take measures to help manage the coronavirus. Simply complying with the Regulations and staying home as much as possible is doing your part to fight the outbreak. Some people may also be able to volunteer to help with specific community needs. Indeed, the overwhelming response to the government’s NHS Volunteer Scheme, which had over 750,000 people signed up at the time of writing this blog (there is now a temporary pause in recruitment), and citizen-driven community support initiatives such as COVID-19 Mutual Aid, which had gained 3434 members at the time of writing this blog, demonstrate many people’s altruistic desire to step up for the common good.

Final thought

In this time of crisis, a shared identity of solidarity in the war against COVID-19 might outweigh any underlying concerns about mistrust. Whilst the police have been given powers that ­could be abused in a police state, and there have been some unfortunate cases of police over-reach, we live in a country where the police are the public and the public are the police. We all of us want the same thing: to get through the COVID-19 situation with as few deaths as possible. Everyone has a part to play, whether it’s enforcing the restrictions in a police uniform, providing medical care in hospital scrubs, or just staying home and watching TV in pyjamas.