Coronavirus: Criminals caught smuggling £1m of cocaine into UK in face masks

25 April 2020, 17:47 | Updated: 25 April 2020, 17:52

Priti Patel issued a stark warning to criminals during a press conference
Priti Patel issued a stark warning to criminals during a press conference. Picture: PA

By Matt Drake

Criminals have been caught attempting to smuggle £1million of cocaine into the UK in face masks, the home secretary revealed today.

Priti Patel says sophisticated criminals including drug dealers and fraudsters are taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis.

Speaking at the government's daily conference, Ms Patel said in one case, a million pounds' worth of cocaine was found hidden in a box of face masks being sent to the UK.

Last week officers found cocaine worth more than £1 million hidden in a consignment of protective face masks in a Polish-registered van en route to the UK through the Channel Tunnel.

​Two men have been charged with conspiracy to import Class A drugs after cocaine worth £3 million was discovered in a purpose-built hide in a lorry that had come by ferry from France to Dover.

The National Crime Agency said lorry driver Gary Sloan, 50, from Magheralin in Northern Ireland, and Jason Bunce, 57, from Kingswood in Kent, were appearing at Canterbury Magistrates' Court on Saturday.

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Photo issued by National Crime Agency of part of a seizure of cocaine in Dover with a potential street value of about £3 million
Photo issued by National Crime Agency of part of a seizure of cocaine in Dover with a potential street value of about £3 million. Picture: PA

A 40-year-old man from Dover, who was detained at a haulage yard in the town, has been released under investigation.

At least 36 kilogrammes of cocaine was recovered by NCA investigators and Border Force officers in the operation on Thursday night.

Sloan was arrested after the discovery and Bunce was detained after being stopped near Dover, the NCA said. Officers from the NCA and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) also carried out searches of properties in Northern Ireland's County Londonderry and County Armagh.

NCA regional head of investigations Gerry McLean said: "This was a significant seizure of class A drugs which would have generated a large amount of profit for criminals involved in drug supply.

"Crime groups involved in drugs supply are also involved in violence and exploitation, so cutting off their profits reduces the harm they can cause for our communities.

"Working with partners like Border Force and the PSNI we are determined to do all we can to disrupt and dismantle gangs involved in drug trafficking."

The arrest came days after the NCA warned that criminals including drug traffickers were continuing their activities despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Home Secretary Priti Patel issued a warning to criminals trying to capitalise on the coronavirus pandemic.

In her closing remarks of the government's daily press conference, Ms Patel said: "Any criminal seeking to exploit this virus for their own gain, our outstanding police and law enforcement agencies are absolutely on to you.

"They are the absolute best of us all and they continue to work tirelessly to keep our country safe."

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