Thousands of people in a mental health crisis will be “left without support” under worrying and inappropriate police plans to “walk away” from emergency incidents, health chiefs have said.
In a letter seen by the Guardian, the Metropolitan police comissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, said that from September he would order the force’s police officers not to attend thousands of 999 calls about mental health incidents.
The move by Scotland Yard, which employs nearly a quarter of all officers in England and Wales, follows the rollout of a similar policy in Humberside. The change would help free up resources to focus on solving crime, Rowley said.
But health chiefs have raised the alarm about the plans, suggesting that vulnerable people would be “left in limbo” and put at risk of harm. They also pointed out that only the police could publicly section people in a mental health crisis.
Rowley has given health and social care services a deadline of 31 August before launching the ban, which will be waived only if a threat to life is feared. His letter to the Met’s health and social care partners was sent on 24 May, giving them just three months to plan for the change.
Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, called the sudden move “unhelpful” and raised concerns about the “resources that will be necessary to plug those gaps”.
“We don’t have those resources,” he said. “We also have a workforce crisis in the health service. We can’t just pluck new members of staff from nowhere.”
Sarah Hughes, the chief executive of Mind, said there was not enough capacity in the NHS to replace the work currently carried out by police officers, and raised concerns about the timing of the plan. She also rejected suggestions that 999 mental health incidents should not be a core part of policing.
“Any changes to supporting people in a mental health crisis need to be thought through carefully and collectively so that no one is left without support.
She added: “It is right to say that when people are in a mental health crisis, they are often at their most vulnerable, so really need the right support. It is also right to say that mental health is core police business, for example, only the police can publicly section people in mental health crisis.”
Andy Bell, the chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, said: “It’s a worrying sign of the rising levels of need for mental health crisis care that the Metropolitan police are threatening not to respond to emergency calls.
“It’s right to expect that health and social services should be there for people in a mental health crisis,” he told the Guardian. “But they are struggling to keep up with rising demand for urgent care after years of austerity, especially in social services.”
Brian Dow, the deputy chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said it was “not appropriate” for the Met to have “simply imposed an artificial deadline and threatened to walk away”. The risk was “that people in crisis are left in limbo between two struggling public services”, he added.
“Individuals in mental health crisis need urgent access to the right kind of treatment and support to help them through the emergency, and on occasion this will involve the police when they pose a risk to themselves or others …
“The solution lies in the police, mental health services, the voluntary sector and the government getting around the table and figuring out the answer, with the government addressing the very significant funding gap that exists.”
The Met plan was “potentially alarming” and risked creating a “vacuum”, said Zoe Billingham, a former inspector of constabulary.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she said there was “simply no other agency to call” other than the police for people in crisis, adding: “There isn’t another agency to step in and fill the vacuum.”
A spokesperson for the NHS in London told the Guardian it would continue to work with the Met to help people “get the right mental health support at the right time”.
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