Police will be forced to provide further crucial care and health assistance during public sector strikes, which will hamper efforts to fight crime, Britain’s most senior officer has warned.
The Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, claimed officers were having to spend more time keeping an eye on mentally ill and vulnerable patients in A&E departments instead of catching criminals.
The comments came days after nurses voted to stage strikes across the UK – for the first time in their history – in pursuit of a better pay deal.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Rowley said he planned to withdraw police from some of these tasks but that the situation would become “exacerbated” when public services took industrial action.
“If agencies we work closely with strike, it’s hard to imagine that more work won’t potentially overflow in our direction unless we’re very robust about it,” he said.
Rowley said just 22% of calls to the Met were related to crime and that more than half of his officers on some shifts were monitoring people with mental health crises in hospital or in custody.
He said he planned to withdraw police from performing such tasks, adding: “It’s really tough because these are difficult issues but I’m spending lots of police time dealing with things that aren’t police work.”
The impending strikes are likely to be the first in a prolonged series of actions over the winter and into the spring by several groups of health workers, including junior doctors and ambulance staff.
A spokesperson for the Royal College of Nursing told the Guardian that emergency care “would always be protected” and that A&E staff would not go on strike.
However, NHS bosses are preparing for action by junior doctors, ambulance staff and others.
A Home Office spokesperson said the government was “disappointed that the union has voted in favour of industrial action”.
Rowley said the Met needed a 27% funding increase “just to stand still” in comparison with a decade ago. “We must invest urgently in our fragile foundations,” he said. “The blurring where we take on more and more work into social care, mental health, is unsustainable.”
He added: “We seem to have fallen into taking calls that the ambulance service can’t get to which are fundamentally health issues. We’re dealing with massive amounts of mental health cases.
“Meanwhile, there’s police work that we’re not doing. That can’t be right.
“We’re just doing the work around how to draw those lines. We’ll be talking to the ambulance service and to the health service about those boundaries.”
The latest strike action comes amid mounting action by public sector workers. Rail staff have staged several strikes over the last five months in their pay dispute, as have Royal Mail personnel, while 70,000 members of the University and College Union decided on Tuesday to take industrial action over pay.
Civil servants running public services also voted to strike, joining a wave of stoppages expected to hit the UK as workers fight to protect living standards in the face of double-digit inflation.