CUMBRIA Police may have to redeploy some officers into ‘core roles’ if the most extreme predictions for coronavirus are realised and absenteeism rates rocket, says a senior officer.

Assistant Chief Constable Andy Slattery has outlined how the force plans to cope should the outbreak escalate dramatically, potentially creating an absenteeism rate of up to 25 per cent.

According to experts, the COVID-19 virus has the potential to affect up to 80 per cent of the UK’s population, and if that happens over a short period it would put public services under huge pressure.

The Cumberland News has learned that some people who have called the NHS 111 service – the key public advice service for anybody with concerns – were not answered for almost an hour.

Cumbria Constabulary is one of several key public services in the county which are in the process of updating their contingency plans for coronavirus, which England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has warned is now “likely”to develop into an epidemic.

The virus globally has affected more than 93,000 people in 80 countries. In Italy – Europe’s worst affected country – all schools have been closed and fans have been banned from sporting events.

Mr Slattery said: “Experts are saying that at any one time between 20 and 25 per cent of the workforce might be absent; and we are looking at what we can do if we end up that level of absenteeism. Potentially, throughout the outbreak, up to 50 per cent of the workforce may need to be off work.

“That means we could not continue to do all of the functions we currently do.”

Mr Slattery said that the force currently employs about 1,200 officers.

If the coronavirus crisis escalates dramatically, those officers who are not currently performing 'front line' functions may have to be redeployed into the more critical roles to ensure the protection and preservation of life.

He said: “Some of our functions are really core roles: we need people answering the phones for 999 calls; we need patrols to attend emergency incidents where there is a real risk to the public; and we need to investigate serious crime. We can’t not investigate when children are at risk of abuse.

“Some of the slower time work which benefits society – the longer term pieces of work – we will simply have to postpone. We have to use our resources to deal with the critical work of protecting the public and responding to emergencies.”

He accepted that some low-level crime, such as minor criminal damage incidents, may not be dealt with if that meant those officers were not available for more urgent work.

“If there’s a road traffic accident on the M6, we need to respond quickly,” said Mr Slattery. “All of our 1,200 officers potentially are available for ‘front line’ duties in extremis. Officers who are currently on non front-line duties may have to be deployed to front line duties.”

The Cumberland News spoke to some people in Carlisle whose calls to 111 were unanswered for almost an hour. “If you’re in a situation where you have concerns about coronavirus and you want to minimise the risk for your own safety, it’s really not helpful,” said one man, whose call was not answered for 54 minutes. The Department of Health declined to comment, saying it was an issue for NHS England.