20th July 2020

Belfast One is the lead partner and funder of the PSNI City Centre Beat Initiative. Meet Constables Owen Kelly and Gail Harrison who work to address the issues of anti-social behaviour in the city centre. The officers continued their patrols and liaison with stakeholders during lockdown to ensure the city was safe, premises secure and provided reassurance and advice to those businesses who remained operational for essential services across this period.

What has working in the City Centre during lockdown been like?

For the first couple of weeks we were trying to adjust, experiencing similar reactions to what everyone else was going through, both in our home lives and at work in the City Centre. It was definitely a very strange, almost eerie feeling with most businesses’ shutters closed and very few members of the public walking about and next to no traffic. There was a very strange quietness. With approximately 30 years policing experience in the City Centre between us, we have never experienced anything even remotely like it. However, there were pockets of activity with perhaps eight essential shops that remained open from day one. With fewer people about and less businesses open we were able to concentrate our efforts where we were needed.

All the shop owners, businesses’ staff, office employees, shoppers, tourists and all those who we would normally have had contact with and see in the City Centre but were no longer there were never far from our thoughts. We were very conscious of those especially who work in the City Centre who would have been placed on furlough and who would have been concerned for their future.

We were very aware too that our habits had to change in line with the risks involved with the pandemic. It was strange not greeting people with a handshake and having to keep a social distance, but the possibility of conveying the infection back to our own families served as a stark reminder. Like everything though, especially in Northern Ireland, the City Centre and those of us who work and visit it, are resilient. We were confident though, even with that element of uncertainty and apprehension, that we would get through this.

How did you assist essential businesses during lockdown and have you been involved in helping businesses as they re-open?

During the initial period there was a core of essential businesses that remained open. Initially members of the public by and large followed the Government Guidelines under the Public Health Protection (coronavirus restrictions) Regulations but where there were breaches we would stop, chat and engage with those individuals. We would explain what the Regulations were, encourage them to follow the guidelines pointing out how their actions impacted on their own health as well as of those around them and then as a last resort we would issue enforcement penalty tickets.

Aside from maintaining Public health and safety our other major concern was maximising the trade potential for those businesses that were still operating, keeping our City Centre alive and providing an essential service that many still relied upon.

As time progressed we worked more closely with other organisations including the City Centre hostels. There were individuals who continued to come into the City Centre and involved themselves in Anti-Social Behaviour mostly concentrated around the essential stores that were still trading. We met with staff and residents of the hostels and held meetings to encourage them to remain within their accommodation.

We also maintained our high visibility patrols. We were able to deal with any building alarms that went off, particularly in vacant premises. We conducted security checks, again particularly where premises were not trading and therefore were more vulnerable. We were able to contact owners or management companies and inform them of any issues with their properties.

As parking restrictions were relaxed we also offered assistance to those businesses who were negatively impacted by obstructions caused by inconsiderately parked vehicles. We provided Police cones to a number of premises and we spoke with offending drivers. We were kept surprisingly busy during the initial period. As the Regulations continue to relax we have welcomed the opening of the majority of businesses. As we have all worked together on how the commercial city progresses to operate under the Guidelines we have met with businesses and offered support and practical presence, for example in managing initial large queues.

3. Have you seen any changes since retail and hospitality businesses have reopened? How do you find people are adhering to social distancing?

We would say that there is a real buzz starting to return to the City Centre. With each day footfall appears to be increasing. Shops and offices continue to re-open and members of the public would say they are relieved to return to the City Centre. Obviously the most obvious visible difference would be the stores having to put measures in to comply with the guidelines around social distancing, leading to queues outside their stores. However, even this has changed with the distance required being reduced, allowing more customers into stores and reducing the time customers need to queue before entry. Customers seem to be happy to wait to get into stores to make the purchases they have been craving during lockdown! Obviously the hospitality sector has been affected by the Regulations. Each day we see more businesses re-opening and the City life returning.

There are obviously very controlled measures in place from stores and businesses regarding social distancing and other guidelines which on the whole are well received and well observed. However, it could be said that a certain amount of complacency has slipped in whilst people are walking around the busy streets. We need to appeal to everyone’s social responsibility to adhere to the measures as best they can. We all need to comply with the guidelines to ensure Belfast City Centre continues to thrive and that further lockdown measures do not have to be imposed.

What are the main changes in the city centre in a post lockdown world?

We believe that the measures now in place can only bring about a positive change. We think most of us are more aware of our own and others’ health and safety. We believe that people have generally become a little more patient and even a little kinder, considerately looking out for one another. However, for those determined to act selfishly and show no respect to others, well, that’s where we are happy to intervene. We are determined that Belfast returns to being a safe place to work and visit.

Have you any advice for visitors planning on travelling to the City Centre?

Yes, plan to come as soon as you can to Belfast City Centre! We are open for business. We are a safe place to visit and are determined to bounce back from the difficulties of the last few months. Our businesses are doing their utmost to ensure your visit is safe and that the measures in place will be so well managed they will almost be second nature and not detract in any way from your visit. In fact they should offer reassurance of the professional way you will be looked after. So, in short, only come to Belfast if you want to have a safe, enjoyable visit with lots to do in a City that’s back and back better than before.