I want to tell you a short story about a group of extraordinary people, doing extraordinary things, during these extraordinary times. You might not have heard of them before.
If you were to meet any of the police officers (from the Met, City of London Police & BTP), firefighters and NHS staff who are members of London’s Pandemic Multi-Agency Response Team (PMART), they would no doubt try to tell you that they aren’t extraordinary at all. I suspect they would say that they are just doing their job. They might even make reference to that precious, old-fashioned thing called duty. Even so, I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge and salute them.
Each afternoon in recent times, we have been faced with the latest heartbreaking headlines – an update on the number of those who have died in hospital from Coronavirus. The official total is fast approaching 20,000, and behind every number is a name. A family. A story. But what the published total doesn’t include is the number of those who have died from the virus in care homes and in their own homes. Their stories – and the stories of their families – remain comparatively hidden from view.
It has always been the responsibility of the police to respond to ‘sudden deaths’ in the community – to attend the location, to assess whether there are any suspicious circumstances, to comfort a grieving family, to liaise with the Coroner – but never in circumstances remotely like these. Never before in the midst of a global pandemic. Never with people dying in such numbers. Never in the face of such enormous personal risks.
The Pandemic Multi-Agency Response Team was formed as a result of urgent and overwhelming need. Their first shift was on March 31st. Police officers, firefighters and medics were recruited in a hurry, trained in a hurry and deployed in a hurry. And their role is to attend every single suspected Coronavirus death reported anywhere outside of a hospital – to liaise with the ambulance crew already on scene, to confirm that life has been pronounced extinct, to confirm the circumstances in which the person has died, to carefully prepare the body for safe removal and, most importantly of all, to catch a family falling in their grief. The painful privilege of policing is so often to be there on the worst day of people’s lives. On the last day of people’s lives. On their busiest day so far, PMART officers were called out on 42 separate occasions.
They work from four different London bases – in Barking, Hendon, Catford and Putney – and each base deploys 2-3 PMART cars every shift. The cars are crewed by two police officers, a firefighter and a health worker, usually a nurse. Every time someone dies of coronavirus, they respond. And it would surely be impossible to perform their role for any length of time and to remain untouched – unaffected – by the things that they see and the things that they do.
Earlier this week, I spoke to Stuart, one of the PMART PCs. As with every other member of the new team, he has set aside his day job in order to take his place in one of the cars.
Stuart lost his own father just last year. And it was the memory of his dad that he carried with him as he prepared to respond to his first PMART call. He wondered how it might affect him; how he might feel. Because, beneath the uniform, Coppers are people just like you and me. And I think we forget that sometimes. He described the protective clothing that he and the rest of the team are required to put on each time they are deployed – the full hazmat suit, the gloves, the mask and the goggles. He described the way in which the kit acts not just as a physical barrier, but as something of an emotional barrier too. And he described one of the early calls: to a husband who had died; to a wife who was now all alone. He told me about the eventual arrival on scene of members of her family, who came to the front of the house, but no further. Because that was as close as the virus would allow them. There were no embraces; there was no physical contact of any kind. The one thing a widow most needed was the one thing she was denied.
Like every police officer, Stuart has no doubt lost count of the number of dead bodies he’s seen over the course of his career, but he told me that the PMART role is unlike any other he has taken on before. And when he gets home to his wife and two young children at the end of every shift, he carries with him the memories of faces and places he will likely never forget. He also carries with him the inevitable concern that he might have caught the virus too.
After speaking to Stuart, I also spoke to Ben – one of the PMART sergeants – and the first thing he wanted to mention was just how proud he is of the people he’s working alongside. He talked about the sense of purpose he felt in what they were doing – in their contribution to an unprecedented national effort. Dealing with dead bodies is perhaps the most immediate and obvious part of their role but, for Ben and his team, it is dealing with the families that represents the greatest responsibility of all. Sometimes police officers and their emergency services colleagues are the only ones with shoulders strong enough to bear the full weight of another’s grief.
The youngest coronavirus victim that Ben has dealt with was twenty-one. The oldest was ninety-seven. And every contact leaves a trace. The older man reminded him of his own grandmother, currently living in a nursing home and as vulnerable as can be. So often, the stories of strangers have echoes in stories of our own. “It’s a grim job, there’s no two ways about it,” he told me. “But it matters.”
Which is why I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge Stuart and Ben and all the rest of them – police officers, firefighters and nurses going where most wouldn’t, doing what most couldn’t. The very best of people in the very worst of times. And it’s not just the PMART officers and their colleagues of course. It’s every other police officer and member of the emergency services too – people who are out there right now, putting themselves in harm’s way on behalf of the communities they serve.
I have often heard it suggested that policing is an extraordinary job done by ordinary people. The same has no doubt been said about being a medic or a firefighter. But it’s a description that has never quite sat right with me. It’s the ‘ordinary’ bit that doesn’t add up. I was a police officer for more than twenty-five years and, now more than ever, I find myself thinking about the women and men I used to serve alongside. When I think of the best of them, I realise that, in order to be able to do the job of a police officer – and do it well – you need to be extraordinary in the first place.
In these unprecedented times, I want them to know how grateful I am.
When it comes to media coverage of the policing response to the pandemic, it seems to me that so much of the focus has been on the negative – on isolated instances of individual officers misinterpreting or over-reaching their new powers. The headlines have been about Easter eggs and shopping bags and park patrols and the rest. By comparison, far less attention has been given to accounts of police officers being coughed on, bitten and spat at. Or to tales of Coppers visiting the elderly, doing their shopping and filling their fridges. Or to stories of the thousands of officers who are simply getting on with the day job – protecting the most vulnerable and confronting the most dangerous in society. When it comes to policing, bad news travels much further and far faster than good news. And when it turns out that some of the negative stories weren’t even true in the first place, the damage has already been done.
I’m no blind apologist for the job I used to do. Sometimes police officers – both individually and collectively – get things dreadfully wrong. We must never shy away from that fact – or from holding policing up to the light. But there has to be balance. For every negative story occupying the news pages, I could tell you a hundred extraordinary ones – about the extraordinary people who do this extraordinary job. One of my old bosses had it right: they are the everyday heroes and heroines who police our streets. And theirs are the stories that demand to be told.