My name is Henry Blake, I am the writer-director of the feature film County Lines. Like many, my life has been put on hold due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Only days before the UK went into lockdown, the final preparations were being made for the UK cinema release of County Lines. I was about to embark on a hugely exciting national tour of arthouse/independent cinemas, which was shaping up to be crucial in deepening the general public’s awareness of the county lines phenomenon.
For those of you who might not know what county lines is, it refers to a series of drug distribution ‘lines’, triggered by mobile phones and managed by highly organised criminal networks. One of the main devices used to transport, promote and sell the drugs is vulnerable children, some as young as nine years old. These children, who by and large are from disadvantaged backgrounds, are targeted, coerced and exploited for financial profit.
But what a lot of people do not know is the scale and depth of potentially life-changing trauma they can experience while out on the lines. To steal a quote from the film, the children are the “acceptable loss” of the county lines business trade.
What has been fascinating to me during lockdown is that county lines networks have not been put on hold. No dealers or exploited children have been furloughed. The cogs of modern-day slavery, child criminal exploitation and class-A drug distribution in this country plough on despite the unprecedented (sorry I had to get that word in somewhere folks) global pandemic.
A layer of social normalcy has been peeled back and this has only confirmed that county lines has been hiding in plain sight for years. Sadly, the pandemic has solidified something I have known for years – county lines networks are extremely resilient and will adapt to any situation. The National Youth Agency’s current report on county lines operating under COVID-19 states that under the lockdown vulnerable children have become even more susceptible to grooming and recruitment.
With the majority of youth workers’ employment being halted, mine included, along with nationwide closures of our already-scarce youth centres, aspirational incentives for vulnerable young people are at an all-time low.
It seems that county lines (and Zoom) could be the big winners of this situation. One anecdotal piece of evidence I was told was that criminal networks are now packing drugs in face masks. Take a second to consider this terrible twist in the narrative of the UK’s neverending illegal drugs market story…
So, what is this all about then? Dame Carol Black’s insightful and brilliant independent review of the current drug situation in the UK was one of the few reports, in my opinion, to begin to tackle this question. The answer could be labelled ‘complex’ and ‘ongoing’ but really it’s deceptively simple – inequality. As long as the banner of inequality flies high across this nation, bold criminal initiatives like county lines will succeed in recruiting, exploiting and traumatising the one proven outcome of such social imbalances – vulnerability.
And as long as the stubborn, rationalised minds of senior leadership continue to provide a persistent lack of support for those in need, whoever and wherever that may be, the cold truth of the matter is that we will not see county lines disappear.
Children like Tyler, the lead character in the film, have been living under the lockdown of inequality for years. Perhaps then we could draw on this unique pandemic experience and dare to develop a comprehensively kinder, more imaginative vaccine for social viruses like county lines too?
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Originally published: 18 June 2020