Some 1,500 police officers across south London have been ordered to switch off the NHS COVID-19 app while on duty, openDemocracy can reveal.
Superintendent Dan Knowles, of the Met Police’s south area command, told police in an email sent on 6 January that “the guidance is that officers switch the app off when at work”.
This guidance, which is a U-turn on previous advice, has been branded as “asking for a big outbreak at work”, by Dr Thomas House, an expert on infectious disease modelling at the University of Manchester.
The Met’s guidance appears to be aimed at reducing the numbers of officers that have to self-isolate after being contacted by the NHS test-and trace app, which the government has said is key to the pandemic response.
Explaining that many officers were needing to take time off for sickness or self-isolation, Superintendent Knowles advised staff to switch off the app at all times while at work, since it had “been found to activate through lockers, office walls and at distances greater than 2m”.
In emails obtained by openDemocracy, senior police leadership for the Met Police across Croydon, Sutton and Bromley also stated that “officers need to be in the workplace, even if their role is not immediately ‘front line’”. This seemingly contradicts government advice that “everyone who can work from home must do so”.
One Met officer said that their police station had “virtually no social distancing”, poor ventilation, frequent hot-desking, and no facilities to wipe down surfaces or keyboards.
One Met officer in the south London area, who asked to remain anonymous, told openDemocracy that telling officers to switch the app off was “horribly reckless”, adding that their police station had “virtually no social distancing”, poor ventilation, frequent hot-desking, and no facilities to wipe down surfaces or keyboards.
Earlier this month, a mass workplace outbreak of COVID was reported at DVLA offices in Swansea, following an instruction for workers to switch off the app “so that their phones do not ping”.
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, described openDemocracy’s findings as "really concerning”.
"If this is an issue about phones being kept together or in lockers during shifts, a problem we've sometimes seen elsewhere, then the Department for Health and Social care needs to urgently work with the police to make sure they're still able to access these digital safeguards,” she said.
openDemocracy understands that police generally keep their phones on their person throughout the day and rarely leave them in lockers.
The Met said that the emails sent to south London officers reflected guidance from the government on using the NHS app within “COVID-secure environments”.
“Throughout this crisis, senior officers across the Met have been in regular contact with local teams to share critical updates on the Mets response to the virus,” a Met spokesperson said, adding that staff and officers had also been given additional advice on working from home.
A series of U-turns
When the NHS COVID app was released in September, the National Police Chiefs’ Council originally instructed police to keep it switched off while at work. However, following discussions with the Police Federation of England and Wales, the guidance was swiftly changed to allow officers to have the app switched on at all times.
Following the change of advice in September, the Federation said they “would encourage and urge our 120,000 members” to download the app “for their own safety” – something which is now impossible for officers across a large swathe of south London.
“I don’t understand really why they have done it”, the officer interviewed by openDemocracy said of the decision to change the advice. “It really does just lead to more people probably spreading it around the office and then more people going off.”
The change in guidance has not been announced publicly, leaving more than 900,000 south London residents unaware that their police officers will not have the app switched on.
The Met officer interviewed by openDemocracy said that the new rules reflected “a senior leadership which is out of touch” with its rank-and-file.
They added that police have in recent months come under increased pressure from senior leadership to enforce coronavirus restrictions through on-the-spot fines. “It makes me feel hypocritical doing that while knowing that I’m not doing everything I can, that I’m being asked not to follow government advice.”
“A really dangerous situation”
Following his initial message on 6 January, Superintendent Knowles sent a follow-up email two days later, copied to Borough Commander Dave Stringer, acknowledging “some feedback and Emails of challenge” [sic] regarding apparent contradictions between the guidance in his email and “Pan-London” advice.
However, the officer interviewed by openDemocracy stated that he felt unable to give frank feedback to senior leadership due to concerns that he would not be able to remain anonymous. The officer added that he also felt uncomfortable going to his union representative.
“The way that the Met is structured means that it’s not really in anybody’s interests to cause a fuss in that way,” the officer told openDemocracy, saying that around a third of his team have “expressed distaste” to him about the COVID guidance.
A spokesman for the Public and Commercial Services Union, representing a majority of police support staff in London, said: "We were made aware of an instance where a manager advised a staff member to switch off their track and trace app. Following discussions with the employer, such instructions are now invalid and our members should at all times be operating the track and trace app in order to help keep them safe."
When contacted by openDemocracy, the Home Office said that it did not comment on the actions of individual police forces.
The mayor of London’s office, which is responsible for the actions of the Metropolitan Police, also declined to comment.