The impact of COVID-19 on County Lines drug gangs

14th July 2020

Whilst legitimate UK businesses have been considerably impacted by the effects of COVID-19, so too has the illicit market and those connected to it, with the pandemic having uncovered new opportunities and new difficulties for those on both sides of the law. This article will briefly explore the drug trade in the UK as well as county lines gangs before looking into how county lines might take advantage of the lockdown, how those who are vulnerable to these gangs are at a heightened risk, and how the lockdown could in fact prove beneficial for the police. The article will also look into potential issues that could possibly arise with the further easing of lockdown.

The first question to be asked is what is County Lines? As described by the National Crime Agency (NCA), County Lines is the transporting of illegal drugs ‘from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries, usually by children or vulnerable people who are coerced into it by gangs’. Most often the drugs are exported from urban centres to rural areas.1 2 The Strategic Hub on Organised Crime at the Royal United Services Institute has also pointed out that the County Lines form of organised crime is ‘heavily dependent on mobile phone connectivity and/or digital social media’.3  The NCA has estimated that in any given month 800 to 1,100 of these lines are active and cashing in on the £10 billion a year illicit drug market, with a total of 3,000 ‘unique deal lines’ having been identified in 2019 – a 50% increase from 2018.4 5 The London Metropolitan Police have estimated that a third of these active lines have their base of operations in London.6  To tackle these County Lines, which rose to prominence in 2018, the Metropolitan Police in conjunction with other police forces across England and Wales launched ‘a nationwide blitz’ to take out illegal drugs gangs, utilising a £20 million cash injection from the Home Office.7 The nationwide blitz, dubbed Operation Orochi, has successfully dismantled 86 County Lines phone numbers from November to the end of May and has seen 183 charges for drug trafficking given out, of which so far 18 cases have gone to court. Exemplifying the importance of this work, the Home Office announced a further £5 million of funding for work against County Lines, including Operation Orochi.8

Despite the renewed focus on combatting County Lines, those who operate in this way have continued to transport drugs and have, in certain ways been able to benefit from the pandemic. One of the most obvious advantages of the pandemic, albeit a double-edged one for obvious reasons, is the disrupted supply and demand of product which has both led to ‘a noticed a massive surge in panic buying of cocaine, heroin and marijuana’ before lockdown, and the inflation of prices.9 Reduced drug shipments has reportedly raised the price of cocaine from £30,000-£35,000 a kilo to £45,000-£50,000, the NCA has also reported that since the lockdown heroin prices have doubled.10 11  Gangs have also had to adapt from their dependency on a ‘free and low-profile within the mass population’ due to the lack of footfall during the lockdown and have since been able to benefit from COVID-19 restrictions.12 A key way in which these gangs have been able to take advantage of COVID-19 restrictions has been by utilising the concept of key workers and their ability to move more freely during the lockdown. To this effect, drug dealers have attempted to acquire NHS identifications and lanyards in order to pose as keyworkers and carers to reduce the chances of being stopped. These identifications are usually attained through the creation of fakes, however, there have also been reports of keyworkers being mugged for their credentials.13 Drug dealers have also dressed as joggers, dog walkers and Deliveroo drivers as a way of legitimising their presence outside during the lockdown.14 A further way in which lockdown has proved beneficial is the legitimisation of facemasks, which has allowed dealers to hide their identity from CCTV whilst appearing as a health-conscious member of the public.15

The lockdown has also turned out to be beneficial for the country’s various police forces with figures for England and Wales at the beginning of lockdown see a 27% reduction in robbery and serious assaults, and a 37% reduction in burglaries from the same period in 2019.16 This reduction in other types of crime has meant that the police have been able to be more proactive with County Lines crimes.17  The keener focus on County Lines crimes, coupled with aviation and shipping bans from traditionally drug-producing countries, such as Pakistan and Colombia, has led to the need to ‘move larger quantities in each consignment’, and consequently made it easier for police to detect.18 The NCA has also noted that ‘the closure of many cash-based businesses… [has made it] harder for criminals to conceal proceeds of their crimes’. This has allowed the NCA to seize 25 tonnes of class A drugs and £15 million in cash from the start of lockdown to May, commenting that this is ‘notably more than during the first three months of the year’.19 The lack of footfall on the streets that has led drug dealers to adapt has meant that those slow or unable to adapt have begun to ‘stand out’ in the quieter streets.20 This has led to an increase in positive drug stop and search outcomes conducted by the Metropolitan Police from March to May of 42%.21 Transportation of product by gangs, whose favoured mode of transport is the rail network, has also been impacted by the lockdown and, whilst it is reported that there has not been a reduction in drug runners attempting to use public transport during the lockdown, County Lines reliance on juveniles, as well as ‘the 94% reduction in rail travel’ has meant that potential drug runners are far easier to spot. 22 Those who have swapped rail for road have also encountered issues and have been stopped by police patrols, in particular at the start of the lockdown when travel directives were in force.23  A further ‘bonus’ of the lockdown has been the reduction of ‘cuckooing’ by gangs, in which gangs ’take over the home of a vulnerable person to carry out cutting, sorting and the dealing of drugs’.24 There had been fears at the start of lockdown that the absence of family and care worker visits could lead to an increase in the practice of cuckooing, with former superintendent Leroy Logan commenting that ‘a lot of it will be going behind closed doors. They’ll utilise vulnerable people’.25 Thankfully the health risks concerned with cuckooing has led to gangs relying less on cuckooing, instead setting up their own dealing hubs called ‘trap houses’.26

Despite the gains made by police, the lockdown has heightened the risk of those most vulnerable to being taken advantage of by the County Lines gangs who ‘frequently target children and adults – often with mental health or addiction problems’.27  A report by the National Youth Agency (NYA), published in May 2020, has found that 60,000 children aged between 10 and 17 in the UK identify as a gang member, with the Children’s Commissioner estimating that around 4,000 in London alone are being exploited by gangs.28 29 The same NYA report found that 500,000 young people had been exposed to ‘risky behaviour’ associated with gangs and a further million are categorised as coming from a ‘vulnerable family background’, a category most at risk with gang involvement and exploitation.30 Professor Simon Harding of the National Centre for Gang research has warned that gangs having to adapt to the pandemic has meant an increased reliance on recruitment through social media where they are able to groom and exploit young people ‘while their families have no idea’.31 A further concern brought about by the pandemic has been the switching of public transport to private cars and taxis by young people transporting drugs which puts young people in more vulnerable positions, as well as decreasing the likelihood of them being caught.32 Traveling long distances, as is usual for county lines, whilst COVID-19 restrictions are in effect also increase the likelihood of those transporting drugs to remain away from home for prolonged amounts of time due to the shortage of public transport. There is also a worry that parents would be reluctant to report their children missing, fearing that they will be penalised for breaking the COVID-19 lockdown.33

To prevent the heightened risk of transporting drugs during lockdown, some gangs have also begun to develop ‘franchise operations’ in which local recruitment is favoured over recruitment from the ‘home base’. This new model has become a concern for local authorities who have been forced to assess at-risk people from rural as well as metropolitan bases.34  With many schools still shut, and many parents still reluctant to send their children to school, the NCA has warned that those out-of-school are vulnerable to being recruited.35 The closure of youth centres has also meant that young people lack safe environments in which to hang out with the Children’s Commissioner for England warning that vulnerable young people have ‘simply gone off the radar’.36 Further to this, the closure of these places has made it harder for at-risk children to be assessed, and interventions made. During the lockdown Children protection referrals, usually made by schools and health professionals, have decreased by 50%.37 Reductions in staffing levels has also meant that social workers are unable to visit people and financial support, in some instances, is not being received, making the perceived camaraderie and financial independence of a gang all the more attractive.38

Whilst knife crime has dropped considerably during the lockdown, the easing of lockdown and the return of the night-time economy could lead to a ‘post-lockdown drugs binge’ according to the think tank Volteface, which gangs could seek to capitalise on.39 40 Professor Simon Harding has also pointed out that, although away from the public eye, gangs have remained active on social media ‘where rivalries have been bred and birthed during lockdown’ and could ‘spill out onto the street as lockdown measures ease’.41 This is also a fear held by NYA who forecast the potential for ‘a surge in gang violence post-lockdown’.42

It can be said that both the criminals and the police forces have been able to use the lockdown to their benefit, and both of which will have developed skills that can be utilised to increase efficiency post-lockdown, such as the move to local recruitment by County Lines. However, it would appear that those most vulnerable have been overlooked and the effects around the closure of youth clubs and support services were not adequately investigated. Whilst a recession is expected, as a result of the pandemic, it is vitally important that assessments be fast-tracked and youth services and Violence Reduction Units are not defunded. If this were to happen the secondary impacts of COVID-19 could drastically prolong the recovery of society.