Policing and COVID-19: Emergency powers, social distancing, and the interruption of police recruitment and probationer officer training and education

Research Institution / Organisation

Northumbria University

In Collaboration With

The College of Policing; Northumbria Police; Durham Constabulary; Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (London); HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland and Scottish Police College; Police Service of Northern Ireland and PSNI College

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

July 2020

Research Context

UK police forces must have the capacity to tackle crime, maintain safety and security during a state of national emergency, and ensuring sufficient numbers of officers are available for frontline duties cannot be underestimated. UK police forces are balancing demands to recruit, educate and train new officers whilst adhering to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, and simultaneously introducing them to emergency COVID-19 curriculums designed to provide minimum training necessary for safe and lawful accompanied patrol to support frontline policing. There is a real urgency to understand forces' ability to support these core activities whilst minimising any detrimental effect on police officer numbers and the quality of student officers’ learning experiences.

To enforce measures intended to minimise daily contact between people, emergency police powers aimed at restricting movement and public gatherings were introduced across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Social distancing and new COVID-19 powers create a unique and untested set of circumstances for UK police forces, including the impact on, and interruption of, police recruitment and the training and education of new police officers. To ensure compliance with social distancing measures police recruitment stalled and face-to-face delivery of training and education programmes moved online where possible, affecting predominantly those in formative stages of learning. Student officers working towards independent patrol status and/or full operational competency were/are directly involved in policing the pandemic while in supported or independent deployment phases of workplace learning. The urgent need for this research is crucial to understanding police force preparedness and resilience to resume recruitment and support student officers’ classroom and workplace learning under COVID-19 conditions; assessing student police officer readiness and ability to adjust to online learning environments and unexpected changes to workplace learning; and supporting the development of post-lockdown and post-pandemic recovery plans, including backfilling postponed learning. This knowledge is key to identifying and sharing good practice across UK police organisations, developing sound solutions to aid national recovery plans, and preparing a robust response for future needs in the eventuality of a second wave or future pandemic.

The launch of the national Police Education Qualifications Framework brought a requirement for English and Welsh police forces to collaborate with universities to deliver new entry route programmes into policing, with PCDA starting September 2018. While this resulted in considerable change that has not been without challenges, currently 20 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have gone ‘live’ with their new PCDA provision, some only days before social distancing measures, and the introduction of new police powers to enforce these measures. As forces in England and Wales revise current recruitment and training programmes in light of the temporary suspension on all face-to-face activity, so too are Police Scotland and the Police Service Northern Ireland in line with their respective programmes, policies and procedures. For student officers, their lived reality of experiencing these changes will require resilience, ability and preparedness to adapt and cope with unexpected adjustments to classroom and workplace learning. An additional consideration for English and Welsh forces concerns the impact of the government’s priority ‘uplift’ drive to recruit an additional 20,000 police between November 2019 and March 2023. The size and scale of the recruitment drive is now compounded by the need to conduct this process where possible under social distancing measures.

Recruiting, educating and training new police officers are core activities for police organisations throughout the UK. New working conditions created under COVID-19 measures have compelled forces to rapidly innovate and adapt to ensure continuity and quality of critical business areas. In turn, student officers must prepare for, and adjust to, learning environments and learning experiences that differ radically from those originally envisioned. This research aims to provide insight across the following key themes: 

  1. Assess UK police forces’ preparedness and resilience under COVID-19 conditions to support ongoing and future recruitment activities and deliver education and training to new recruits in the classroom and workplace, including insights into novel methods being trialled to minimise disruption to both core activities. 

  2. Develop a comprehensive evidence base to understand how best to support the student officer learning experience, classroom and workplace, under COVID-19 conditions and during the phased relaxation of lockdown conditions. 

  3. Assist the development of recovery/business continuity plans taking into account the restrictions and inevitable interruption to normal practices and procedures. 

  4. Strengthen and inform future UK police recruitment, training and education activities to ensure readiness to adapt practices in the event of a second wave of COVID, or a future pandemic.


The research is underpinned by the following aims and questions:

  • What are the impacts of social distancing on police recruitment; on delivering, and experiencing, student police officer learning programmes; and applying COVID-19 legislation in practice as a student police officer across forces (Metropolitan v small) across space (urban cities v rural areas) and country (England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland)?

  • What factors will influence the ability for national recovery including, measures in place to backfill recruitment and learning placed on hold, the timeframe and implications; what the wider financial cost to forces is; which areas are most affected; how can the financial cost be measured across forces (Metropolitan v small) across space (urban cities v rural areas) and country (England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland)?

  • What lessons can be learnt from the implementation of rapid changes needed to ensure the delivery and productivity of public policing services including, what reasonable adjustment measures have been introduced to support ongoing recruitment activities and the delivery of learning programmes in the classroom and workplace; what are the lived experiences of probationer student officers and training/education delivery teams across forces (Metropolitan v small) across space (urban cities v rural areas) and country (England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland)?

  • What lessons can be learned to help develop pandemic preparedness in the future to ensure continuity and minimal disruption to police recruitment, training and education practices, including what novel delivery methods and pedagogic practices have been introduced; what additional support has been provided to delivery teams and student officers (classroom and workplace); what are the risks, and how can risks be mitigated; what processes are in place to provide governance and accountability across forces (Metropolitan v small) across space (urban cities v rural areas) and country (England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland)?

Research Methodology

The mixed-methods approach will utilise qualitative (interviews, focus groups, documentary analysis) and quantitative approaches (surveys) to data collection and analysis.

Key stakeholder Interviews:

  • A minimum of sixteen initial scoping interviews (phone/online) carried out with key contacts from each stakeholder organisation to identify specific areas and issues affecting all police forces. This would allow for new themes to emerge; sharpen the focus of existing research questions; and ensure coverage of the most important issues at stake.

  • A maximum of twenty follow-up interviews with strategic actors from stakeholder organisations identified during the initial scoping phase.

Document Analysis:

  • Secondary analysis of documentary materials including policy, legislation, learning and teaching materials deemed relevant to the research questions.

  • Secondary analysis of government statistics released on a quarterly basis measuring progress towards the recruitment of additional police officers in England and Wales; statistics for police recruitment across Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Online Surveys*:

  • Stakeholder: COVID-19 police lead officers across all UK forces; the national committee managing the uplift in police officer numbers in England and Wales; CoP learning, development, and quality assurance team; UK police force recruitment teams.

  • Police and academic delivery teams across UK.

  • Student probationer officers across UK.

*To ensure representative samples the research team will draw upon key stakeholders to act as gatekeepers and assist with access.


Focus Groups:

  • Based on respondents who indicated willingness in the online survey, the research team will conduct a minimum of four online focus groups with stakeholders to gauge their perceptions of the new processes and follow up on key themes emerging from the online surveys.

Interviews with Training/Education teams and probationer police officers:

  • Based on respondents who indicated willingness in the online survey, the research team will conduct a minimum of sixty interviews with probationer police officers and forty interviews with PCDA Delivery Teams to capture their lived experiences of the new processes and follow up on key themes emerging from the online surveys.

Date due for completion

January 2022
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