Like all of you, members and non-members alike, we have been concerned about the rise in COVID rates beyond an already awful 50,000 cases (of Delta) per week. Much has changed in the last 2 weeks. As Donald Rumsfeld once said :
“as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.”
So what do we know ?
1. We know that the spread of Omicron is lightening fast. Within weeks it is set, the government believes, to be the dominant variant in this country;
2. We also know that early indications are that 2 doses of the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine gives ZERO protection against symptomatic infection; Pfizer is slightly better at 30% protection;
3. We know ventilation is important to prevent the spread of the virus;
4. We know that police stations are some of the worst ventilated environments you are likely to go to;
5. We know our profession is an ageing one. And we know this virus is deadly to those with health issues and more dangerous the older you are;
6. We know that suspects at a police station may not always be honest with police, whether it be about their covid status, or something else;
7. And whilst we know mask wearing WILL help, we know some in custody, including police, are not wearing them consistently, or properly;
8. We know the government want to try and stop the spread. They want us to ‘work from home if you can’;
9. We know maths. We know a small percentage of a very big number is still a big number. A small percentage of hospitalisation or deaths if millions are infected is still an unacceptably high death rate and could break the NHS. We know in London 75% of cases are the new Omicron variant, with the national position being around 40%. This is a massive tidal wave of new cases in just 2 weeks;
10. Daily infection figures are now close to 90,000 new cases
11. In London hospitalisations are up 26% week on week.
12. We know we already have too few colleagues and real capacity issues;
What do we know we don’t know ?
1. We don’t yet know if 2 doses of the vaccines will protect against hospitalisation and death;
2. We don’t know yet quite how effective the boosters are, and how many are going to get them;
3. We don’t know if the quoted early suggestion of 75% protection from a booster 2 weeks after vaccination means a 1 in 4 chance you could still get the virus if jabbed;
4. We don’t know how long any boost will last;
5. We don’t know how many will be hospitalised;
6. We don’t know why, if we can work from home ‘if we can’ we are being prevented from doing so by an arm of the state;
7. We don’t know why it was possible to attend remotely during the original waves of the less virulent strains, but we cannot now;
8. We don’t know how many of our colleagues need to fall ill, have to isolate, or be hospitalised or even die before we can return to a safe working pattern.
The switch to remote advice was not a decision taken lightly by any of the original signatories to the protocol. The earlier versions of the protocol were in our view a triumph of cooperation between the various parts of the CJS. It will undoubtedly have saved lives. It will have enabled the Legal Aid Agency and firms to ensure access to legal advice where otherwise there would have been none. And it ensured quicker access to that advice for suspects.
There are many who rightly point out there is much to discuss before any decision can be taken to make remote interview attendance ‘the norm’. Many will be for it. Many will be against it. But we are not in the ‘norm’ now by any stretch of the imagination.
We have had useful discussions with the other signatories to the protocol but despite strong support for a return to an earlier version of the protocol during the current pandemic of ‘omicron’, it has not been possible to agree to do so.
We therefore believe that once again our members must ask themselves these very simple questions :
1. Am I following government guidelines and doing my bit to keep the spread of this nasty virus to a minimum ? Can I ‘work from home’ ?
2. Are my local police stations a covid-safe environment in my experience ?
3. We may be warriors for our clients and fiercely defend them, but did I sign up to put my health at risk ?
4. Is there a better way to ensure my client’s rights are protected whilst keeping us all safe ?
We suspect many will think the answers to those questions are such that without a move to remote interviews in almost all cases, they will simply be unable to safely meet demand and unable to offer advice at police stations.
That would have an awful impact on justice, but this is an eventuality that does not need to occur.
The solution is there. Let’s learn the lessons of the earlier waves: use technology where it can help; avoid the spread of this virus; and avoid unnecessary risks. It’s time to return to earlier versions of the protocol, at least until we know more about this variant and more have been triple vaccinated. The current version of the protocol is not sufficient at this time. We are already receiving reports of local informal arrangements, either relying on exception 3 of the exiting protocol, or going beyond it, by parties seeking to keep the wheels of Justice turning whilst maintaining safe working practices. Our members are entitled to certainty and a consistent approach nationally which earlier versions of the protocol provided.
In the time taken to read this release, another 300 people will test positive for covid 19 in the UK.
Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.
It’s genius is in it’s simplicity.
So to all the spokes in the CJS wheel: let’s do our bit.