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Northern Ireland: Police spit hoods may increase risks of spread of COVID-19; PSNI should suspend use

Amnesty secures PSNI admission that spit hoods offer no significant protection against COVID-19 and may actually increase infection risk

Amnesty calls on PSNI to suspend use of spit hoods

Amnesty International is calling for the suspension of the use of spit hoods by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) following the explosive admission that they provide no protection from COVID-19.

A spit hood is a controversial restraint device about which Amnesty has previously raised human rights concerns including the risk that they may restrict breathing and cause extreme distress to the wearer.

At the end of March, the PSNI Chief Constable gave the go-ahead for the controversial devices to be made available to officers in custody suites and subsequently more widely in response to coronavirus. The Northern Ireland Policing Board, which had previously withheld its approval for roll-out of spit hoods, went along with the decision.

Amnesty engaged in detailed correspondence with the PSNI where a roll-out of spit hoods was justified on the grounds of providing increased protection against contracting COVID-19 to policing staff.

However, following questioning by Amnesty of the suitability and effectiveness of spit hoods in providing protection, it has now been established that spit hoods, particularly the Spit-Guard Pro model, used by the PSNI and the most widely-used spit hood within UK policing, does not protect against the transmission of COVID-19, contrary to claims that these devices should be made widely available.

In a June 9th letter, the PSNI revealed to Amnesty that the manufacturers explicitly declare that spit hoods provide no protection against COVID-19 spread, stating: “The product will not prevent aerosols from coughing or sneezing and is therefore not an effective means to prevent Covid-19. 

Amnesty’s policing experts warned that the process of fitting the hood, and the likely ensuing struggle would result in a ‘cloud of virus particles’ as the struggle is likely to be a ‘significant aerosol generating event’. Once placed over someone’s head, the spit hoods themselves would do nothing to prevent the further spread of the virus via coughing, sneezing or exhalation The use of spit hoods could therefore not only fail to offer the promised protection, but could in fact place police staff in greater peril 

Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s policing expert, said:

“Spitting and threats to infect people are abhorrent, but spit hoods are not PPE and could put officers in greater peril. This new admission from the manufacturers that the devices will not stop the spread of this deadly virus is startling, especially for any police officers who might have previously been under the impression that these devices would help keep them safe.

“Spit hoods could actually be seen as an un-safety device and Police Chiefs should make it crystal clear to all their officers spit hoods do not offer any protection from COVID-19 transmission or infection. Police forces across the UK should now withdraw them from use in possible or suspected cases of COVID.”

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“The pandemic has been used as cover to roll out these controversial restraint devices in Northern Ireland in the face of the scientific evidence. Now it turns out, as Amnesty pointed out from the start, not only do spit hoods not protect police officers, but their use could actually put them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. 

“We would urge the Chief Constable Simon Byrne to consider the dangers posed to both his officers and the public in Northern Ireland and to suspend the use of spit hoods immediately.”

Outside of potential risks to officer safety, Amnesty is also concerned about the potential risks of using these devices on individuals who are ill with COVID-19, or in recovery from it. It is known that COVID-19 causes severe breathing difficulties, including damage to the lungs and airways. Any use of force that can restrict or impair breathing in these circumstances therefore presents additional risks of adverse outcomes.  In addition, any struggle, panic, stress, or anxiety caused by the act of applying and using a spit hoods is likely to cause extra stress on the respiratory system irrespective of the breathability of the hood itself.

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