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County Lines after COVID – a new threat?
street drug deal
Crest Advisory challenges the assumption that the threat from county lines drug dealing has reduced during lockdown.

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The adaptability of drug markets

A recent report from Crest Advisory questions the received wisdom that the threat from county lines operated by organised crime groups (OCGs) and gangs would reduce because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Crest argues that the picture appears to be far more complex. The gangs who operate county lines have always proven highly versatile and adaptable, and they are now embracing new tactics to protect a lucrative business.

Significant reductions in the number of children reported missing from home or care have been cited as evidence that exploitation through county lines has reduced due to the lockdown. On the surface this makes sense, as it seems obvious that exploitation of vulnerable children and in county lines drugs networks may be easier to disrupt during the COVID-19 lockdown due to increased visibility of young people in public spaces or on public transport.

However, there are several reasons that this should be treated with caution.

Some boroughs are reporting a noticeable increase in the length of missing episodes during lockdown, possibly because young people transported to trap houses are having to stay there for longer due to increased demand and lockdown restrictions.

  • The move towards local recruitment means that in assessing whether children are being exploited in county lines during lockdown, we should pay as much attention to vulnerable children in the ‘county bases’ as those going missing from the ‘home bases’.
  • Rescue Response also say that young people are also being provided with taxis via apps (such as Uber, Bolt and Kapten) in order to make longer journeys. Taxis continue to be used by dealers and networks for deliveries.
  • Given that there is still demand for Class A drugs – and that by retreating from the market, even temporarily, gangs risk ceding territory to rival groups – those who operate lucrative county lines will naturally seek to change the patterns of recruitment and exploitation and embrace new methods of transport, distribution and retail rather than putting their drugs lines on furlough.
  • The charity Missing People, who have been engaging with the police in different regions since the lockdown began, have told us that there is evidence of increased drug dealing in ‘liminal spaces’ such as railway land, car parks and abandoned industrial buildings. The decreased visibility of young people involved in drug dealing may not paint the full picture.
County Lines Model © Crest Advisory
© Crest Advisory

A new operating model post-pandemic?

Whilst many of the tactics and ‘swerves’ adopted by the OCGs and gangs who run county lines seem likely to be time-limited to the COVID-19 lockdown, others may endure, helping gangs to refine their model post-COVID 19. Crest’s  conversations with police, children’s services practitioners and experts indicate that the lockdown is accelerating and refining the use of tactics and tools which allow older gang members to groom and exploit vulnerable young people and professionalise the marketing and distribution of their products – whilst also creating greater distance between themselves and the dealing bases. The money flows back up the line, whilst the risk travels downward.

The shift in the consumer economy from the high street to online delivery for both food and consumer durable goods presents an opportunity for drug lines to operate covertly both in terms of resupplying local bases and delivering drugs to consumers. This has been a growing feature of the drug market over recent years and is likely to accelerate. Runners and dealers disguised as key workers and supermarket workers have been reported during lockdown, but the pre-COVID tactic of using fast food delivery drivers and white van drivers is likely to become increasingly important during and after COVID, allowing drugs lines to operate in plain sight.

With a cohort of young people isolated, bored and impoverished by lockdown, there is a danger that as restrictions start to lift, gangs will find a new generation of recruits for a new, professionalised local franchise model of county lines. 

Crest asks whether law enforcement and protective services for children can respond to rapidly evolving models of exploitation through county lines. To do so, there will need to be a system for seamlessly sharing data across borders and agencies and disrupting grooming and criminality that has migrated from the streets to encrypted apps. It will also mean a radically new approach to prevention, working with schools, pupil referral units and providers of alternative provision for those outside of mainstream education.


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