British police specialists say there are at least 300,000 people in the country who pose a sex threat to children, warning that there could be a spike in online offences during the lockdown.
With schools across the country almost entirely closed and children increasingly using web-based educational resources, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said on Friday (3) it knew from online chat that offenders were discussing opportunities to abuse children.
“It is sickening to think that some criminals are looking to exploit the coronavirus crisis to cause harm online,” said Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the lead officer for child protection.
“Despite the issues that the pandemic will cause for law enforcement, child protection is still a priority and we remain totally committed to keeping our young people safe.”
The police said their assessment of the risk was based on intelligence which predates the outbreak of the virus, and that the 300,000 individuals posed a threat either directly or online.
Officers said they were urging parents and carers to ensure children were aware of online risks and were launching a campaign to reinforce safety messages, saying child sex abuse content could be found on the open web in “just three clicks”.
Rob Jones, the NCA’s director of threat leadership, said: “Child sexual abuse remains a priority threat for the agency at this difficult time.”
He noted that easy access to internet had “enabled a section of society to commit increasingly horrific crimes against children through grooming, live-streaming and distribution of indecent images”.
“Though we are working around the virus like everyone else, we are continuing to pursue high-risk online offenders to ensure they are arrested and children are safeguarded,” he added.
“Preventing offences occurring is always crucial and now more so than ever when there is masses of online traffic and a possible elevated threat to children.”
Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), told ITV there was a “terrifying escalation of the threat to our children”, noting that “these numbers are unlike anything before”.
She added: “It is horrifying to think sexual predators are viewing the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to exploit a captive audience of children, who are spending more time at home on their devices.”