In January 2018 Kier Pritchard was appointed temporary Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police – and plunged almost immediately into crisis planning.

In the two years since getting the top job his force has been thrown from crisis to crisis, with coronavirus the latest in a growing list.

“It’s been a rollercoaster so far,” Mr Pritchard says – perhaps an understatement.

“We’ve been in major incident mode since I started. The first weekend was Beast from the East and we had countless motorists stranded in the snow.

“We went straight into Novichock, which went through trials and tribulations for a very long time. 

"We planned for National Armed Forces Weekend in Salisbury followed by the Yellowhammer Brexit planning, which was demanding.

“We’ve then surfaced from that straight into Covid-19.”

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Chief Constable Kier Pritchard in Salisbury in 2018 Picture: TOM GREGORY

The latest crisis could be the most challenging yet for the Chief Constable, who also leads the county’s local resilience forum.

A tenth of Wiltshire Police’s workforce is already absent, either through normal illness or because they are self-isolating. Senior officers have planned for as much as a third of the workforce being unable to work.

Some day-to-day operations have been halted in order to focus on policing basics.

The community speedwatch scheme, run by teams of volunteers many of whom are older, has been stopped.

Last week, the force closed all of its police station front desks in an attempt to dissuade people from coming in and potentially spreading the virus.

And 999 call handlers have been split between their usual home at police headquarters in Devizes and Gablecross police station.

How coronavirus cases have climbed since the pandemic began

Mr Pritchard says: “That means I can organisationally distance people providing a critical service. I’ve got teams working 24/7 out of Swindon and out of headquarters in Devizes and they don’t pass over so that will limit if any of them are symptomatic and pass it into their team unknowingly we will be able to maintain at least one site.”

The Chief Constable and his team have a daily dashboard showing demand on the force and how many in his 2,200-strong workforce are absent.

“At the moment all services are being maintained but we’ve deliberately placed several on hold,” he says.

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Gablecross police station Picture: DAVE COX

999 calls are still being answered in under five seconds, officers were getting to emergencies within 12 minutes on average and non-emergency calls in 40 minutes.

“In terms of rural crime, organised crime, community policing, attending scenes, we are trying to maintain a core business. But as the abstraction levels change I will need to strictly review all of the non-essential parts of policing and potentially cancel them.”

Crime is likely to change during the lockdown. Officers have already seen more call domestic violence call-outs and are likely to see more cyber-enabled crime, from fraud to sexual exploitation of young people, as those stranded at home spent more and more time online.

Read more: Can I go to the park during the coronavirus lockdown?

Persuasion – not coercion

Over the weekend stories abounded of police breaking up rammed house parties and ticketed walkers for flouting Government lockdown rules and driving miles and miles to walk in countryside beauty spots.

But as of yesterday afternoon, Wiltshire Police was yet to issue an on-the-spot £60 fine. While officers shut car parks at Coate Water and Barbury Castle this weekend and left posters on cars warning people to stay at home, the focus has been on persuasion rather than coercion.

“If we see groups or three or more we will look to have a conversation, engage and disperse those groups because of the public health risk,” the Chief Constable says.

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Police at Coate Water on Sunday

“If people flagrantly wish to abuse the rules and regulations, when the legislation is passed police will have the power to enforce.

“Do I want my officers to go out and enforce this day in day out? No. Of course I don’t.

“What I don’t want is for members of the public to be unnecessarily criminalised through the issuing of a fine.”

Read more: How Great Western Hospital sprung into action to fight coronavirus

Why might Wiltshire Police be taking a slightly softer line than, say, in Derbyshire where police have been criticised for shaming Peak District dog walkers in a video posted to social media?

The clue perhaps lies in the force’s experience during the Novichock poisonings that shut down large parts of Salisbury and Amesbury for months in 2018 and last year.

A key lesson from Salisbury was showing the human side of policing. Mr Pritchard says: “The more human we can be with the public in understanding concerns and anxieties, demonstrating that policing is delivered by normal people, with normal houses and families will level policing to the communities.”

It’s a lesson the force may well need to draw on in the future. The crises are not going to go away.

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One of the posters placed at Barbury Castle by police on Sunday

What’s next? I ask. Mr Pritchard stifles a cough. “I wasn’t expecting to be operating within to an extent permanent crisis of what’s happening across the world and the country.

“But whether it’s global warming and therefore seeing more extreme weather conditions, I think there is a new reality that public services are going to be stretched, with all of the wider political and environmental implications.

“Covid-19 could never have been foreseen. It’s highly unprecedented and this needs us all to rally together and do our best to fight the virus.”

Stay home, protect the NHS

He’s calling on people to heed the government advice and stay indoors where they can.

“We are in hugely unprecedented times,” he tells the Adver.

“This is a national public health emergency and therefore the strictest controls, rules and restrictions are ones that are not going to be lightly considered but ones that are being put forward to save life and to ensure that the NHS can try to cope with the demands it is and will be placed under.

“Whilst we are amongst that public health emergency my message is really, really clear: we need to follow the rules to the letter as outlined by the Prime Minister.”

“This is to prevent the virus spreading. It’s to make sure we can protect vulnerable people, our loved ones, our families and those who are trying to provide critical working roles to keep communities safe.”