Gangs are using the Covid-19 lockdown as a “recruitment drive” for vulnerable young people including girls who can travel easier under the restrictions, a leading youth work charity has warned.

In a report published on Tuesday, the National Youth Agency said the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has exposed more young people to gang-related activities and exploitation.

The charity said that, while there had been a drop in drug-related arrests, seen as a proxy for gang activity, gangs had adapted their activity rather than reducing overall.

Although patterns will vary by area, the Hidden In Plain Sight report said that gangs continue to act but have become less visible by moving off of the streets or are preparing for a rapid return as restrictions are lifted.

Youth workers in the report said gangs are using the lockdown as cover for a “recruitment drive” in some areas, particularly among vulnerable young people who may face problems such as domestic abuse, addiction or poor mental health.

Because they’re not being seen by other trusted adults, young people are easier to get access to without being spotted that they’re having that dialogue. Gangs are adapting to that and are using this as an opportunity to engage with young people they’re not normally able to readily engage with because they’ve not got that support network around them that they might normally do.

Leigh Middleton, chief executive officer

The report also highlighted that girls and young women were being recruited into gangs as they can move about more easily while under lockdown.

When we think of gangs or violent crime we often think of young men, so actually what the gangs are doing is they’re recognising that actually if they engage young women then they’ll fall below the radar. Less people will expect young women to be active in a gang or working in county lines groups so it’s just easier to hide what those young people are doing for the gangs and therefore they’ll pick on those young people because they’re less likely to get caught.

Leigh Middleton, chief executive officer

Criminologist Craig Pinkney, director of Solve: The Centre for Youth Violence and Conflict who was involved in the report, said it highlighted the vulnerability of children and young people across the UK.

Organised criminals are very smart and very skilful at showing these young people that you can attain particular material things by just doing one or two jobs which may seem very small or very trivial at that particular time and what these young people don’t recognise is the impact or the consequences of these particular types of behaviours. Not all young people that involve themselves in criminal activity wanted to engage in those particular behaviours. Oftentimes these young people are exploited, they are groomed.

Craig Pinkney, Criminologist

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Police announced an expansion of its operation against county lines drug dealing, targeting the organisers or line-holders rather than the groomed young people on the ground.>Natasha Chopra, Greater London service manager for The Children’s Society’s disrupting exploitation programme, welcomed the announcement but stressed the need for victims of exploitation to be offered support.

We know that some line-holders are themselves young people who are being exploited, or young adults who were previously groomed and felt pressured to try to rise through the ranks to survive. That’s why it’s also crucial that children at risk are identified and offered early help.

Natasha Chopra, The Children’s Society

The NYA has called for more youth work provision and for youth work to be classified as an essential key service.>Mr Middleton said many youth workers have been furloughed and that around a quarter of youth sector provision will close permanently due to the pandemic.>He added that many youth workers are continuing to have contact with young people, either using technology or going to public spaces where young people gather.