Young people exploited by county lines gangs have been impersonating “essential workers” to deliver illegal drugs throughout the coronavirus pandemic, reports have revealed.
The warning comes as police launch a new campaign warning people about the signs of child grooming and exploitation.
According to the Guardian newspaper, young people, often vulnerable and impoverished, are being told to dress as nurses and Deliveroo drivers to deliver cocaine, heroin and other illegal substances during the lockdown.
It forms part of a new “click and collect” service operated by county lines gangs as the nation stays indoors.
Commenting on the situation, Superintendent Andy O’Connor of Merseyside police said high unemployment rates are “making it easier” for criminal groups to recruit young vulnerable people.
“If you are a clever crime group you force a woman to drive a car. Put yourself in the shoes of a crime group leader of a drug gang: use vulnerable women to move your drugs and cash,” he said.
“They don’t look like your stereotypical drug dealer wearing dark clothing, North Face coats, hoods up, baseball caps on. That sticks out like a sore thumb. If you force the mothers, the sisters, the grandmothers to do the drug dealing on their behalf, where there’s debts to be paid off, it’s an easy way to move drugs around the country.”
In one investigation, the police found London and Merseyside drug gangs exploiting children “as young as 10” to do their criminal work for them.
To combat child exploitation, enforcement agencies have now launched a new campaign, known as Eyes Open, warning people of the signs of criminal exploitation.
“The people need to realise these people are grooming people the same way sex offenders are. They worm their way into people’s lives. ‘I’ll do you a favour,’ that sort of thing,” said Mr O’Connor.
“Vulnerable people are being threatened with significant harm, either to themselves or family members. They will threaten to sexually assault family members.”
He concluded: “That’s why what we are doing with Eyes Open isn’t just trying to arrest the drug dealers, it’s helping the people who are being threatened, who are being forced to do this, to put these preventative measures in place. We want to give people different pathways and opportunities to help themselves.”