Plans to cut police mental health callouts in next two years branded ‘simply dangerous’
Plans to sharply reduce the number of mental health callouts dealt with by police in England in the next two years are dangerous and could have catastrophic consequences, psychologists have warned.
A government directive published on Wednesday means forces in England and Wales will be expected to reduce the number of such callouts officers attend from around 80% to between 20-30%.
While patients detained under the Mental Health Act currently wait with police officers for an average of 12 hours before receiving medical care, the plan would bring in a one-hour handover window for medical staff to take over.
President-elect of the British Psychological Society Dr Roman Raczka said: “We absolutely agree that the vast majority of people in mental health crisis should be supported by trained mental health practitioners, and not the police.
“However, to withdraw police support within the next two years, at a time when mental health services are already stretched beyond capacity and under resourced after years of chronic underfunding, is simply dangerous.
“The promised investment in mental health services will not deliver trained mental health staff to the front line overnight, particularly bearing in mind the NHS’s well-documented recruitment and retention issues.
“We’re extremely concerned that people in crisis will fall between the gaps with potentially catastrophic consequences, with even greater risks to children and young people.
“It’s vital that all mental health trusts receive adequate funding to do this, and that realistic and achievable timeframes are in place to resource and safely deliver this plan across England.”
The comments came as the national British Transport Police (BTP) announced it will not be adopting the government plan.
Policing minister Chris Philp said it is up to each of the 43 police forces in England and Wales along with healthcare boards to work out when and how to put the changes into place, although there will be a taskforce to monitor whether the plan is being implemented.
Asked about the lack of resources in the health service, he said there will be £2.3 billion additional funding per year for mental health services by April 2024, and £150 million to build new facilities.
By March 2024 it is expected that 24-hour mental health crisis phone lines will be established across England and Wales, and over the next two years funding is being put in place for mental health ambulances.
Mr Philp said: “The police have been responding to a very large volume of mental health cases, which isn’t, of course, the best thing for the person concerned because what they need is medical assistance, not a police officer turning up.
“What the National Partnership Agreement does is sets out a framework and an expectation that across the country police forces will work together with the local NHS, to make sure that people suffering mental health crises get a health response and not a police response.”
Britain’s largest force the Metropolitan Police has already said officers will stop responding to mental health callouts from September unless there is a threat to life.
In Humberside a pilot called Right Care, Right Person has seen an average of around 1,400 hours per month of police time saved, which Mr Philp said equates to an estimated one million hours a year nationally if similar savings are seen across all forces.
However, BTP is not going to adopt the national plan and will instead work on its own changes to try to save officers’ time waiting with patients in A&E.
Chief Constable Lucy D’Orsi said: “We know that vulnerable people, or those in mental health crisis, are often drawn to the railway. It’s why responding to these incidents is at the core of who we are as a police force.”
She went on: “The very nature of the environment in which we operate is fundamentally different (from other forces).
“We’re a national force, the railway is a dangerous place, and we have a duty of care to ensure the safety of those who work and travel on the network.
“Helping those in crisis is at the forefront of who we are and what we do.”
Police will respond to cases where there is a public safety risk or a crime being committed, but not to cases such as welfare checks out of hours, or where a patient has failed to attend an appointment.
Mr Philp said he expects forces to use the time saved for more visible patrolling in town centres, faster response times and more resources for investigating crimes.
Mark Winstanley, chief executive of charity Rethink Mental Illness, said the plan was “right in principle” and welcomed the move to bring in the changes over time.
But he added: “It remains unclear how its ambitions will be fulfilled and whether the funding, workforce and resource will be in place to enable a whole-sector response that can safely meet rising levels of need.”
Dr Lade Smith, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “It should not be taken as a green light for a unilateral discontinuation of police presence in mental health emergencies.”
David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “Councils recognise that the police may not always be the most appropriate service to respond to a mental health crisis and so it is good that this is being clarified through this national agreement.
“However, we are concerned that this is being rolled out too quickly, with inadequate local engagement and partnership working meaning that other agencies risk being unable to pick up any increases in demand for their services.”
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