Society and communities
Hiding in plain sight: County Lines during Covid-19
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic was immediately followed by substantial speculation and frontline reports suggesting that the UK’s lockdown restrictions were having a disruptive effect on ‘County Lines’ drug distribution and child criminal exploitation. Our research set out to understand the implications of possible adaptations to County Lines on young people’s susceptibility to exploitation, and the efforts of police to disrupt illicit drug networks.
County Lines involves the transportation of illegal drugs from one area to another, usually involving children who are being coerced and exploited into supplying drugs from major cities. The County ‘Line’ refers to the mobile phone line used to take drug orders. The County Lines model of drug supply generally relies on the exploitation of young people as ‘drug runners’ to move and sell drugs far away from their homes, often across police and local authority boundaries – thus offering distance and anonymity for the criminals who control the drug supply.
Yet, as national lockdowns and other restrictions continued to limit people’s capacity to move freely without creating suspicion, our research found that the County Lines distribution model was forced to adapt. Just as workplaces made changes that enabled employees to work more flexibly and from home, the illicit drugs trade evolved to ensure the continuity of its operations. With fewer people travelling by train during lockdown, drugs distribution by County Lines networks increasingly switched to roads, particularly via private-hire-vehicles.
This shift happened alongside existing trends towards the recruitment and exploitation of young people in drug market locations. This approach requires less frequent travel than the traditional County Lines model. While the typical model relies on young people making regular trips from metropolitan centres into provincial areas, we’ve seen increasing trends towards less frequent bulk deliveries, and the exploitation of local young people to sell drugs on to users. These young people are more easily able to blend-in with the local population and avoid police detection while making drug deliveries. Point-of-sale tactics also changed, as dealers looked to hide in plain sight by dressing as key workers and using daily exercise to justify their movements.
Our research also identified that social media has been a significant enabler of this trend. Opportunities for face-to-face interaction reduced while schools were closed and young people’s time online at home increased, making them susceptible to grooming and peer-influence from those looking to exploit them.
Child protection services, the police, courts and other frontline services have also been disrupted by Covid-19. Where once professionals relied upon frequent face-to-face engagement to risk assess young people, government restrictions have limited such interactions to phone calls, text messages and doorstep meetings. Court and school closures further exacerbate the risk of exploitation to young people, fuelling concerns over online harms and grooming while young people are confined to their homes.
Lessons learned by criminals during the pandemic may make offending harder to detect and increasingly resilient to disruption by law enforcement. By investigating the risks posed to young people as County Lines drug dealing evolves, our research will help inform the response of law enforcement and safeguarding practitioners in their efforts to better protect the vulnerable.
This on-going research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and interim findings are available on the Rights Lab website.
Dr Ben Brewster is a Rights Lab Nottingham Research Fellow in Modern Slavery Perpetration
Institute for Policy and Engagement
This blog appears as part of the series from the Institute for Policy and Engagement on the university’s ongoing research contribution to the Covid-19 effort.