Crime levels are rising back to "pre-Covid levels" and stretched forces will struggle to enforce rules as restrictions are eased, a police chief has warned.

From today pubs with outdoor spaces are allowed to reopen, alongside non-essential shops, gyms and hairdressers.

But while the new freedoms are welcomed by people in England after more than three months in lockdown, top officers fear crime such as violent disorder will go up, making Covid enforcement difficult or impossible.

Under current laws, indoor gatherings and congregating in groups of more than six is still illegal to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Police were called to reports of large groups gathering at the park
Police will focus their attention on large gatherings, it is believed

Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, told The Independent that reported crimes are "not far off pre-Covid levels".

This comes after small gatherings of up to six people were permitted outside last month, when the country's 'stay at home' order was lifted.

He said: "Members are reporting that it’s getting very close to business as normal."

This, he warned, means that forces will have to make tough decisions on which calls to respond to.

He said: “In terms of prioritisation, we have to balance a large amount of demand as it stands and on top of that you’ve got the coronavirus regulations.”

Police responding to reports of a 'rave' in Manchester
Police responding to reports of a 'rave' in Manchester

As a result, he said, officers would only attend breaches with the “most significant risk” to health - including house parties and large unlicensed gatherings.

Mr Griffiths said: "We have to be balanced and pragmatic with the demand and pressure on the service.”

Latest data shows a huge drop in crime when England was in lockdown - with a 22 per cent fall in the four weeks to mid-February compared to the same time the previous year.

Serious violent crime was down by 36 per cent, shoplifting by 44 per cent and burglary by 36 per cent.

Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales, said crime is returning to "pre-Covid" levels
Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales, said crime is returning to 'pre-Covid' levels

National Police Chiefs’ Council Chair, Martin Hewitt said after the figures were published: “We have seen falls in crime during periods of national lockdown and we are seeing the same trends again.

“Although overall crime is lower than the comparable time last year, demand on the police remains significant. As well as day-to-day policing, to prevent and tackle crime and keep communities safe, we continue to work alongside our partners both locally and nationally in tackling this pandemic and limiting the spread of the virus."

Forces are expected to focus on large gatherings, with police chiefs pledging swift enforcement.

Today Superintendent Emily Harrison, who is leading Cleveland Police's Covid response, said: “We know anyone organising or attending such indoor events doesn’t need the regulations explained to them and we’ll quickly move to enforcement in these scenarios.”