Child Criminal Exploitation and County Lines Drug Distribution: Understanding the Impact of Covid-19




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University of Nottingham


Technical Report

Peer reviewed



Executive summary In March 2020, restrictions on movement and social contact were imposed across the UK following the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Many legitimate businesses either closed their doors entirely or made changes to enable their employees to work from home. Media reports also began to circulate suggesting that the illicit drugs trade was also making alternative arrangements for the supply of illegal drugs. Research conducted for this UKRI Rapid Response funded project COVID-19 and Child Criminal Exploitation: Closing Urgent Knowledge and Data Gaps on the Implications of Pandemic for County Lines sought to understand the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the County Lines model of illegal drug supply, and in particular on the resulting criminal exploitation of children. In this report we highlight [1] practitioner-perceived changes and shifts in the County Lines drug supply model, [2] the impact of pandemic restrictions on law enforcement activities aimed at tackling County Lines activity, and [3] the pandemic’s effect on efforts to support and safeguard children and young people criminally exploited through County Lines, or at risk of it. Overall, our research participants indicated that they believed that the pandemic had induced shifts to County Lines that reflected the ongoing evolution of the drug supply model, in addition to responsive shifts directly resulting from pandemic restrictions on travel. Our participants reflected that the pandemic had caused them to reconsider their understandings of the modus operandi of offending and behaviour linked to County Lines, as the pandemic in some cases foregrounded tactics and practices that were different from those considered to be (stereo)typical. In our study, practitioners clearly articulated the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on some young people’s vulnerability to exploitation, on the way in which police and frontline practitioners respond to County Lines and CCE, and on the way in which illegal drugs were being moved and sold. The research methodology included ! A review of published sources (including academic publications, media articles and grey literature) ! Qualitative interviews with 46 practitioners across England. Participants included: ! practitioners working in frontline (statutory or non-governmental) service provision with young people currently or previously exploited in County Lines, or considered at-risk of exploitation; ! law enforcement officers with portfolio responsibility for policing County Lines and the illegal supply of drugs; ! practitioners from law enforcement, non-governmental or other statutory bodies working in analytical roles with responsibility for County Lines and illegal drug supply. Interviews conducted with key frontline and analytical practitioners aimed to understand their experiences and the way they perceived the impact of the pandemic. Through our research we aimed to investigate possible and sudden shifts in perpetrator behaviours, and the development of new safeguarding and support challenges related to County Lines and Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE). Data collection took place between July 2020 and September 2021. We identified several challenges County Lines supply methods Law enforcement agencies asserted that while they believed that the overall volume of County Lines activity was consistent with pre-pandemic levels, they had perceived adaptations to the actual supply methods used by County Lines networks. For instance, significant reductions in public footfall meant that it was no longer possible to hide in plain sight on the country’s rail networks, increasing County Lines’ reliance on moving product by road. Police also highlighted to us that increased enforcement activity on the rail networks may have been a factor that drove this change during the initial months of lockdown. There were also suggestions that restrictions on travel may also have increased the risk of some vulnerable adults having their properties cuckooed and taken over. Others suggested that exploited young people were being required to remain in drug market locations for longer as drugs were being moved at lower frequency, but in higher quantities. There were also indications of shifts towards the recruitment and exploitation of young people already in drug market areas, further reducing the need for frequent travel. Other tactics were also highlighted as mechanisms to avoid detection by law enforcement, such as the use of supermarket carparks as deal locations, enabling dealers to co-locate with customer shopping routines and use keyworker disguises. Safeguarding capacity Face-to-face contact between young people and various professionals was reduced, caused both by a lack of resources and social distancing restrictions (imposed to suppress infection rates), often being replaced either by doorstep or telephone communications. This had the effect of diminishing professionals’ ability to easily identify signs of exploitation. School closures also created challenges, contributing to overall reductions in referrals for young people potentially at risk of exploitation, heightening concerns that many young people were confined to dangerous and exploitative situations both within and away from their homes. Exploitation risk Participants believed that drug supply lines persisted at pre-pandemic levels as Covid-19 did little to affect the demand for class-A substances such as heroin and crack cocaine. This ensured continued demand for young people to move and distribute drugs on behalf of those organising the drug supply. Safeguarding practitioners emphasised these concerns, and suggested young people were at increased risk of grooming through social media, as they spent longer online due to school closures and restrictions on face-to-face social activity. Concern was also expressed regarding young people’s mental health, as practitioners began to receive reports of substance misuse, isolation, and self-harm.



County Lines, Drug Offending, Crime Victims, Covid-19


Brewster B., Robinson, G., Silverman, B, and Walsh D. (2022). Child Criminal Exploitation and County Lines Drug Distribution: Understanding the Impact of Covid-19. University of Nottingham Rights Lab


Research Institute

Centre for Law, Justice and Society