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How are crime trends in England and Wales changing during the pandemic?

In the first lockdown, crime was lower except for anti-social behaviour and drug offences. As economic effects of the pandemic change the incentives to break the law, deprived areas have seen a rise in acquisitive crimes, such as burglary, shoplifting and bicycle theft.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed both the composition and level of crimes in England and Wales. With more people staying at home, and many becoming unemployed or having to shut their businesses, the incentives to commit crimes have changed. So too has the probability of being caught by the police, as empty streets have made it easier to track down offenders.

The lockdown and post-lockdown periods show very different composition of crimes compared with the average seasonal rates. But the effects on crime rates may be lasting: the pandemic has aggravated inequality and this is already palpable in criminal outcomes.

The vaccine rollout may bring back normality in many aspects in the short term. But with more deprived areas showing higher rates of violent crime since the pandemic started, vaccinations may not be able to fix the social damage caused by the crisis.

How has lockdown changed crime rates?

Most developed economies realised the gravity and spread of coronavirus between February and March 2020. In response, governments forced their populations into lockdown and imposed significant restrictions on mobility.

Data from Police UK show that in England and Wales, crime decreased in most categories during the first lockdown, with only anti-social behaviour and drug offences at higher rates than expected. Offences motivated by material gain – known as ‘acquisitive crimes’ – were much lower than they had been in similar months in previous years. Burglaries and robberies are much less likely to take place with shops shut and more people staying at home.

Figure 1: Anti-social behaviour offences in England and Wales

Source: Authors’ analysis of data from Police UK.

Anti-social behaviour was much higher during lockdown than in previous years, by about 25% - see Figure 1. Since such behaviour includes severe breaches of social distancing measures, this means that lockdown created a new type of offence for the police to target.

Drug offences were 17% above average as users continued to require a supply of drugs (see surveys by Release in the UK and GDS globally). The increase is unlikely to be driven by higher drug activity, but rather the result of more arrests as identifying dealers is easier with reduced mobility of citizens (Langton, 2020).

Within crime categories, the police also documented a change in the type of offences. While violent offences were lower on aggregate terms during lockdown, they were much more likely to be domestic incidents. Crimes committed by partners increased substantially, while it was much less likely for victims to suffer abuse from a former partner or unknown aggressor (Ivandic et al, 2020). Intuitively, as lockdown changes social interactions to be restricted at home, it affects all other aspects of human life, including criminal offences – see Figure 2.

Figure 2: Weekly calls for domestic incidents/crimes in London in 2019 and 2020

Source: Data from the London Metropolitan Police Service analysed in CEP research.

What happened to crime after the first lockdown?

Once the first lockdown was lifted in June 2020, crime remained at significantly lower levels on average. This is likely to be because many social restrictions remained in place or were encouraged. For those crimes that did take place, the composition of offence types was very different from that observed in previous years – see Figure 3.

Figure 3: Composition of crimes for the period from June to September in 2019 and 2020

Source: Authors’ analysis of data from Police UK.

Across the country, only anti-social behaviour and drug offences show higher levels. But this is not the case universally. In fact, crimes have become more concentrated in deprived areas. Spatially, the economic impact of the pandemic is starkly clustered.

For example, this interactive map shows increases in the number of claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit by local authority between March and September 2020. The map shows some areas not suffering much (probably as many people were able to retain their jobs by working from home), with others seeing the number of people seeking unemployment benefits more than doubling during those months.

By dividing the country into areas based on high and low claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit, it can be shown that high-claimant areas have seen an increase in crimes since lockdown was lifted (Kirchmaier and Villa-Llera, 2020).

These high-claimant areas are more likely to have higher proportions of Black and Asian population, a higher proportion of lone parent families and worse health outcomes. They have experienced a greater rise in crime compared with previous years, conditional on area-specific and seasonal trends. This is driven by higher rates of violence and public order offences, revealing high social unrest.

By analysing regional variation as well as the impacts of Covid-19 on labour markets, it is possible to identify high-risk groups within the population. These groups include areas with a higher proportion of welfare claimants prior to the pandemic and an above average increase in claims since March 2020.

About 12% of local areas are in this high priority category. Many of them have experienced higher levels of offences in many acquisitive crime categories (such as burglary, shoplifting, bicycle theft and vehicle offences). In this case, deprivation – together with above average damage to economic opportunities – does appear to result in higher acquisitive crimes, as traditional analysis of the economics of crime predicts (Becker, 1968; Elrich, 1973).

Covid-19 has highlighted several important inequalities within UK society. These inequalities persist even in a country where government measures can support people in unemployment and furlough with generous support schemes, and where health is public and universal. Despite all these efforts, the inequality is clear. Further, different economic groups are clustered spatially, concentrating many of the costs of the pandemic.

Different neighbourhoods have been affected differently by the pandemic. Deprived neighbourhoods are experiencing more crimes in certain categories, relative to normal patterns.

Different offence types call for a renewed allocation of policing resources. But changes in policing resources alone will not solve the problem of rising inequality. Social policy must be coordinated and aim for job creation, particularly for those sectors and areas most in need.

Where can I find out more?

  • Covid and changing crime trends in England and Wales: Report by the Centre for Economic Performance, which analyses crime trends during the first lockdown and post-lockdown period and the correlation with economic performance. It highlights the important spatial differences in economic performance and the concentration of crimes.
  • Six months in: pandemic crime trends in England and Wales: Study of crime trends and how crime was expected to evolve during the first lockdown and post-lockdown period, highlighting how permanent changes in mobility may have a lasting impact in the composition of crime.
  • Crime in the era of COVID-19: Evidence from England: Study of crime trends in England, including the second lockdown (October 2020), which concludes that the lockdown effect does not differ strongly between different lockdown periods.

Who are experts on this question?

Crime during the pandemic:

Job destruction during the pandemic:

Authors: Tom Kirchmaier and Carmen Villa-Llera
Image by natefarr from Pixabay.
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