As Covid cases soar to new heights and worries grow about lockdown compliance, ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers filmed with West Midlands Police Force on the frontline responding to reports of potential rule breaches.
We’re following Operation Reliant with West Midlands police - a team of 12 officers trying to enforce Covid regulations in a population of almost three million.
Government legislation requires every single call to be followed up no matter how apparently trivial.
As we patrol the city, officers stop at a cafe. It’s busy with customers drinking coffee at 9 pm.
The man sitting behind the counter is not wearing a mask, and neither are most of his customers who seem to be hanging out rather than simply collecting a take-away order.
As the police approach, some customers pull masks from their pockets, knowing they are about to be reprimanded.
But officers are not in the mood for compromise. After a brief chat to attempt to engage the owner, it’s clear he is hostile to their presence and disinterested in changing his attitude.
He’s issued with a £1000 fine and his loitering customers are told to go home.
As we leave a call comes in, reporting a house party in Perry Bar. We speed across the surprisingly busy city, to a suburban semi.
'Can I step in?' - 'No, it's not my house'
A firm knock on the door, elicits a young woman clearly shocked to see the police and a camera crew.
Her neighbours reported her after seeing friends arriving with alcohol.
She admits she has got people over, but initially says one of them lives with her.
The police check the car number plates outside and establish her guests have driven from Coventry, twenty miles away.
The words PARTY are spelled out in balloons above the mantelpiece. Mumbling about misunderstanding support bubbles doesn’t cut it. This is clearly a breach of rules.
All three women are given £200 fines.
In recent weeks, the police have broken up much bigger parties. At one illegal rave in a warehouse in Digbeth, just before Christmas, police were pelted with missiles as they tried to break up the event.
The organisers were fined £10,000.
Since September, West Midlands Police have:
received 26,232 Covid call outs - involving 85,000 people
told 1,461 people to disperse
issued 1,389 fixed penalty notices
made 14 arrests for not complying/refusing to supply details
issued 19 super-fines of £10,000
And on January 9, when ITV News filmed with the force:
issued 17 fixed penalty notices
gave 14 directions to leave
attended 57 incidents
in 31 cases no action was taken
Officers have also been struggling to enforce the rules on numerous ‘Shisha lounges’ across the patch, where hundreds of people have been congregating.
One in the Highgate area of the city, was repeatedly flouting the regulations, allowing only essential businesses to be open. After initially being fined £10,000, it’s now been ordered to close.
Senior officers tell me there are dozens of calls from members of the public each week reporting breaches in Covid rules. Many are reporting neighbours, or businesses, sometimes erroneously, but each and every call is followed up.
I wonder whether this is creating a rather Kafkaesque situation, where informing on those having a good time is now being encouraged, but Inspector Steve Barnes is clear about how perilous the situation has now become and how the strategy of ‘engage, explain, encourage and then enforce’ is being applied, often in one conversation.
Any hint of obstruction, or being given misleading information, and fines are issued on the spot. This is now, it appears, a zero tolerance policy.
Our next job, is taking us north to Walsall. A pub is allegedly serving alcohol despite strict rules meaning it should be closed.
Police force entry into a pub they suspect is having a lock in, breaching Covid rules
We arrive, and voices can be heard inside, but despite repeated shouts and banging on the door, no one answers.
After a few minutes, an operational support unit arrives with more officers and battering ram. A final warning is issued and then with one deft movement, a back door of the pub is smashed in.
Officers enter and find two men playing pool in the bar, which is littered with half drunk bottles of wine, vodka and beer.
'You've got four people, pretending to be asleep - they do not reside at this location'
Upstairs officers find five more men hiding, one of whom was outside on a flat roof. After searching the pub, a total of nine men are found.
One of them seems bemused by the fuss, saying they were all family and in the same bubble.
He admitted they didn’t live together though. He defended his actions by saying it was no different to going to a supermarket and claimed he always wore a mask.
When I asked him if he’d been wearing a mask in the pub he said no. His arrogance and insouciance is staggering.
'How come family, six people sitting in the pub together - having a laugh - is not allowed?'
For me, this sums up the problem we are facing as a country. People think their own little transgressions don’t matter.
"A drink with a few friends can’t hurt can it?"
"A chat and a laugh with the locals in the cafe is alright isn’t it?"
"A few friends over for a glass of wine is OK since it’s my birthday, surely?"
"Rules don’t apply to me do they?"
The problem is, when you multiply this attitude out across the country, all those little indulgent acts of relaxation, the bending of the rules in your favour, are creating a viral superhighway, giving Covid-19 the space it needs to keep spreading.
Everyone is fed up with the lockdown, but we only have to look at our own behaviour to find out why it isn’t working.