Covid-19

Missing people in the 2020 pandemic

By Amy Humphrey, Dundee University and Hester Parr, Glasgow University

On 16th June 2020, Scotland’s Daily Record newspaper carried the headline ‘Police concerned for welfare of missing Scots woman who vanished from home’. Such headlines are not uncommon, but they are particularly concerning in a pandemic, where the mental health implications of the lockdown and the risks to vulnerable people have been well publicised due to ‘elevated levels of stress and anxiety’. The charity Missing People has also reported an increase in demand from adults and children who are thinking of going, or who are missing and want to explore their options to stay safe, or access emotional support. 

It is still perhaps surprising to find that people are going missing during the dangers of Covid-19. However, the pressures of societal lockdown, the risk of harm from those at home, including challenges for those with existing mental health issues and children’s difficulties in ‘looked after and accommodated settings’, mean that there are complex social and spatial dynamics underlying national figures. The pandemic means we need to think carefully about the geographies of missing people and policing.

Missing People reports in Scotland, England and Wales

The UK records 382, 960 calls to police with 320,715 missing persons incidents created across the UK (2018-2019), but this overall figure obscures varied national and regional incidence, especially in the current moment of national crisis. This may relate partly to how ‘missing people’ are defined. 

England and Wales work with a definition of missing people that states:

‘Anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established will be considered as missing until located, and their well-being or otherwise confirmed. All reports of missing people sit within a continuum of risk from ‘no apparent risk (absent)’ through to high-risk cases that require immediate, intensive action’ (College of Policing APP, 2016; and see Figure 1).

Figure 1: risk assessment and police response to Missing People reports (College of Policing APP, 2016)

Here a missing person could be deemed absent but not missing. Lockdown in England and Wales led to less people reported absent, but more cases of (high-risk) missing people than usual (see Figure 2 below). Overall missing reports are now rising again, according to police representatives, but remain around 25% below pre-Covid levels.

Scotland, meanwhile, has a definition informed by the National Missing Persons Framework for Scotland that does not include ‘absent’:

A missing person is anyone whose whereabouts are unknown and:

1.       Where the circumstances are out of character; or

2.       The context suggests the person may be subject to crime; or

3.       The person is at risk of harm to themselves or another

Lockdown in Scotland has also produced a reduction in reports across all categories according to Police Scotland (but there are no current public figures). 

The overall reduction in incidents since 23rd March can be attributed largely to i) children in care being less likely to go, or be reported as missing, and ii) a sharp fall in the numbers of adults missing from healthcare and psychiatric settings, as Covid lockdown measures took effect. The figures below relate to UK cases referred to the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) Missing Persons Bureau after 72 hours if the case is still open (most other cases are resolved in less than 24 hours). As lockdown eases in early June, lower risk cases are seen to start to increase again, as people begin to be more mobile and reports of absent-missing in England and Wales become more frequent. 

 Figure 2: Missing Persons Unit (NCA) figures for UK cases registered over 72 hours by week (cited with permission from MPU, 2020)

The red high-risk categories in these data include children being ‘repeatedly missing’ and accordingly categorised as at higher risk and those who are deemed to be on suicidal journeys. The unit also reports a greater number of unidentified bodies being found than usual during the pandemic (19 bodies from 23rd March to 31st May, with only 3 identified so far), which may relate to unreported missing people.

In Scotland, there is a ‘business as usual’ message from Police Scotland, despite a reduction of missing people across all relevant categories (Adults, Adults in Care, Children, Children in Care), according to the Police Scotland National Missing Persons Unit:

“Police Scotland is fully committed to investigating all missing person reports as a matter of priority, and to ensuring all of Scotland’s citizens are looked after during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. We take every report of a missing person seriously, and know that people go missing for many different and complex reasons. A significant number of the missing person cases we deal with are about children, and in the vast majority of cases, the child or young person returns or is found quickly. Support to children and young people is vital at this challenging time.” – Colin Convery, Chief Inspector at Police Scotland’s National Missing Person Unit (personal communication, email, June, 2020)

While reports may be down across the UK, the lockdown is understood to have brought new pressures for vulnerable people in care settings, particularly children.  Sector representatives in Scotland have noted that inexperienced locum workers were drafted in to cover for shielding or isolating regular care home staff, with staff absence being particularly high in some urban areas. For young people remaining in residential care who found it difficult to comply with lockdown measures, there was initially a trend to report absences as non-compliance with lockdown guidelines, rather than as missing incidents. The combination of locum staffing and the lockdown thus risked some children being criminalised by fixed penalty notices, rather than being understood as missing (and see https://crimestoppers-uk.org/campaigns-media/blog/2020/may/not-seen-and-not-heard). A joint statement was subsequently issued from Police Scotland, Social Work Scotland and the Scottish Government, recognising the unusual pressures for ‘looked-after-and-accommodated children’ and also instructing care home staff to be guided by the same protocols as before Covid-19, noting:

 ‘If you are providing care to a child or young person, you should follow the local protocols and procedures which were in place prior to COVID-19. This means that care providers should continue to report concerns about children or young people in their care who go missing to the police, as usual’  – https://socialworkscotland.org/briefings/joint-statement-children-and-young-people-who-go-missing-from-care/

Across the UK, police are having to overcome new challenges in responding and supporting missing people, as seen in the management of the Owen Harding case, at the start of the lockdown period ). Owen was frustrated that he could not visit his girlfriend due to lockdown, went for a walk, and has not been seen since the evening of March 23rd. Police efforts to locate him were hampered by people in isolation not answering the door, and closed businesses not able to provide CCTV footage.  Search techniques were adapted, with memory sticks left in packages to be picked up by residents who might have had CCTV. Subsequent support campaigns have also been shaped by social distancing (Owen has still not been found by the end of June 2020). Likewise, and more generally, adaptions have been made in the support of those returning, with video or voice call (rather than in person) return discussions or police ‘safe and well checks’ in place and reportedly working well for some forces.

With rising rates of stress and anxiety across all groups in society, the Missing People charity is, perhaps by default, being challenged with an increase in demand, especially for its remote services. Susannah Drury of Missing People says that:

“The increased demand has been greatest from young people. In April, we had a 15% increase in contacts to our helpline from children and young people compared to the previous 12 months average. In addition in April, there was particular increased demand for online information and support, with 75% more children in Scotland accessing our one to one Livechat support and a 19% increase in unique views of our Runaway Helpline (UK) website from Scotland” – (and see www.runawayhelpline.org.uk/scotland).

Ideally, we need to understand more about the gender, race and ethnic identity of these missing young people in order to fully understand and address their needs (and see the forthcoming Geography Directions post ‘ Missing Black lives’, by the same authors, due in the next couple of week).

Geographies of missing people, post-Covid-19

For geographers, there are different lines of interest and inquiry here. From the emerging trends and observations during Covid-19, we learn that people are still using a crisis-led mobility (‘going missing’) as a way to cope with individually experienced mental health challenges but we also see that how these mobilities are reported and responded to is critical to questions of prevention and protection

It appears that remote forms of support via helplines, texts and websites enhance how some reach out in difficult times, particularly some of our most vulnerable young people. This is a prompt to think further about how digital lives, mobility and mental health might be aligned in the future. 

To end more speculatively, however, we raise questions on post-pandemic geographies of missing people. How, indeed, might people be driven into the mobile and highly risky crisis situation of going missing, not only by individual stressors but also by more collective austere geometries compounding the experience of Covid-19 lockdowns for some? Bigger questions also remain about human crisis mobility in general and what place these have in a revisioned politics of a mobile commons  that cannot be now envisaged without reference to pandemic policing, lockdowns and mental health.


About the authors: Amy Humphrey is a final year (ESRC) PhD student in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Dundee. Her work explores cultures and practices in missing persons police work. She is also a researcher for the ‘Eyes Online’ ProjectHester Parr is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Glasgow and has researched the geographies of missing people since 2011. She has interests in research on mental health, mental illness and creative geohumanities. 

The cover image is Copyright: Martin Muir for geographiesofmissingpeople.org

Suggested further Reading

Stevenson, O, Parr H, and  Woolnough, P (2017). Missing Women: Policing Absence. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 42 (2): 220–232. doi: 10.1111/tran.12160

Parr, H., Stevenson, O., Fyfe, N., & Woolnough, P. (2015). Living Absence: The Strange Geographies of Missing People. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space33(2), 191–208. https://doi.org/10.1068/d14080p

https://esrc.ukri.org/news-events-and-publications/impact-case-studies/changing-police-attitudes-and-approaches-to-missing-persons/

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