New Met Police figures show that the Online Child Abuse and Exploitation Unit (OCSAE) has arrested 45 suspected offenders and safeguarded almost 100 children during the four weeks since the UK went into lockdown – as they warned of the increased threat posed by the exponential growth in the amount of time the public are spending online.
The statistics reveal that 92 children were protected and 68 warrants executed over the month from 23 March, when the government ordered the new ‘stay at home’ measures, to 23 April. An average of ten new live investigations have been launched every week as a result of the 45 arrests over the same period.
If figures are also taken into account for the three weeks from the 2 March, when the UK was dealing with its first 40 cases of the Coronavirus, up until the start of lockdown on 23 March, the unit’s totals for the full seven week period rises to 72 arrests, 132 children protected and 123 warrants carried out.
While figures for recorded offences and referrals have remained stable or dropped since the UK has been hit by Covid-19, the Met is still receiving an average of 50 reports a week from the National Crime Agency (202 between March 23 and April 24) and officers believe that any increase in offending taking place now will not be reflected in the official figures until the months to come.
Detective Superintendent Helen Flanagan said:
“Officers have been working around the clock since the pandemic started using a variety of different tactics and resources to proactively identify and pursue online offenders and protect children and young people.
“Anyone who tries to find and/or distribute indecent images of children online should not think they will be less visible due to the lockdown – they can expect to come to police notice and face arrest, prosecution, a criminal record and possible prison time.
“Online offenders can consider themselves less harmful than ‘real life’ abusers as they hide behind a screen, but there is a vulnerable child at the heart of every indecent image or video and by viewing and distributing these, the abuse is repeated over and over again.”
Det Supt Flanagan explained that while the figures for reports have not currently increased, they anticipate the statistics could well show a rise later in the year due to the huge effect the lockdown has had on the use of the Internet across the board.
She said: “The Internet can be a great space for young people to connect, socialise and learn – but it is also used by offenders as a place to engage with children and commit serious offences – grooming, abuse, and other serious harm.
“The restrictions have led to a huge growth in Internet use, including by children doing school work or occupying themselves while parents and carers are busy – and inevitably there are a greater number of sexual predators online looking to target and groom young people.”
The Met is urging parents and young people to remain extra vigilant and educate themselves around the dangers as well as encouraging them to take steps themselves in order to mitigate the risks.