'Shocking' increase in number of cases of 'vile' spitting and coughing at police officers

30 June 2020, 07:00

At least 2,529 spitting and coughing offences were recorded in England and Wales during the first eight weeks of lockdown
At least 2,529 spitting and coughing offences were recorded in England and Wales during the first eight weeks of lockdown. Picture: PA
Rachael Venables

By Rachael Venables

Spitting and coughing offences have soared by more than 70 per cent during the coronavirus pandemic, official figures reveal.

At least 2,529 spitting and coughing offences were recorded in England and Wales during the first eight weeks of lockdown, a 74 per cent jump on the same period last year and up 71 per cent on the previous eight weeks to March 22.

Some 519 cases involved a “direct threat” or reference to the virus. A spate of reported attacks on emergency workers, shop staff and vulnerable people in recent weeks have seen suspects claim to be infected with Covid-19.

The spike covers 22 police forces, just over half of the England and Wales total, which responded to a freedom of information request by LBC.

Read more: 'Absolutely appalling' moment arrested woman coughs at police officers

The Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents serving officers, said the findings were “shocking” and called the offences "vile" and "completely unacceptable".

Northumbria Police recorded the most spitting and coughing offences between January 27 and March 22, at 319, followed by Norfolk and Suffolk constabularies at 249 and Cambridgeshire saw 245. The City of London Police recorded the least, at four.

Read more: Police officer pours hand sanitiser in own eyes after being spat at

There has also been a 124 per cent yearly increase in the number of spitting and coughing offences against police and other emergency service workers.

Data from 16 police forces revealed there were 386 offences in the eight weeks after lockdown – up 214 on the same time in 2019.

The Crown Prosecution Service said more than 300 people were charged with coronavirus-related emergency worker assaults in April alone, the first month of lockdown, with “the vast majority” receiving a conviction.

The CPS has said coughing or spitting attacks could constitute common assault, punishable by up to six months in prison, while assaults on emergency workers can carry a two-year sentence.

Jon Apter, chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales National Chair, told LBC: “As shocking as these figures are, sadly they don’t surprise me. They highlight the level of violence police officers and other emergency service workers are currently facing.

“Being coughed or spat at by individuals who say they have the virus, and that they want to infect you and your family with this deadly disease is vile. Such behaviour is disgusting and completely unacceptable.

“Early in the lockdown, it became evident that the virus was being weaponised. We were seeing an increasing number of individuals intentionally spitting and coughing at police officers and telling them that they had Covid-19 and hoped the officers caught it.

“I worked with the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure judges and magistrates were issued with appropriate sentencing guidelines for those found guilty of these assaults.

“This is a dangerous and potentially life-threatening offence. I make no apology in wanting those found guilty for these assaults to spend time in prison.”