Drug dealers are posing as joggers or using fake NHS ID badges to continue their trade during the Covid-19 lockdown, an expert on gangs has found.
Prof Simon Harding, the director of the National Centre for Gang Research at the University of West London, said “county lines” gangs were finding new ways of doing business.
Many dealers were heeding government advice on physical distancing, turning to social media, drive-by sales or letterbox drops to avoid infection, he said.
But some have dressed as joggers to avoid police detection, while others have made fake NHS ID badges to continue street dealing.
“On one hand, they really are heeding government advice on social distancing, but at the same time it is business as usual and as people were panic-buying food, dealers were running bulk deals and selling lockdown party packs,” Harding said.
“Vehicles are being used more often to carry out deals arranged by phone, with products thrown from windows and money chucked on the back seat to keep items clean.”
Harding said the lockdown and travel restrictions were affecting the “county lines” gang model, in which young and vulnerable people were being used as couriers to move drugs and cash between cities and smaller towns.
The new tactics have also led to a reduction in “cuckooing” – whereby gang members take over the home of a vulnerable person to cut, sort and deal drugs – because it is seen as too risky for health.
“Sending groups of young lads out to Southend-on-Sea by train to carry drugs is too risky now, so increasingly dealers are driving runners around, or hiring local people to do the job,” Harding said.
“Street gangs are being forced to find new tactics, such as shifting grooming and recruitment online to social media. This means young people can become ensnared in dangerous gang activity from their phones while their families have no idea and that is a worry.”
Last month, the National Crime Agency (NCA) director general, Lynne Owens, said prices were rising because fewer drugs were entering into the UK.
She said some dealers were disguising themselves as key workers by wearing hi-vis clothing or operating from supermarket car parks as they adapt to the lockdown.
“They are having to find new ways of working and new networks,” Owens said. “Drug dealers moving illicit drugs are concerned about greater scrutiny as they recognise that with less people on the streets, they are more visible.”
On 14 April, UK Border Force officials found 14kg of cocaine stashed among two consignments of face masks after stopping a Polish van driver near Calais.