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Why a year of lockdown has made searching for the missing so hard

Mark Townsend
·7-min read

He sat on the deserted platform shortly after 10am and carefully removed his grey Adidas trainers. Then he jumped on to the train track and lay down, waiting.

The driver saw him too late. The 5ft 7in 20-something died instantly at London’s Clapham North underground station. It was 7 April last year; the death went largely unnoticed as the country suffered its first lockdown amid the peak of Covid-19’s first wave.

Twelve months on, and no one has come forward to claim the body. The police don’t even know his name. He went missing from somewhere, but where?

Weeks earlier, days before the first lockdown, a bespectacled studious looking teenager vanished from the town of Sidcup, Kent. Since 16 March 2020 there has been no sign of 16-year-old Ngo Van Nghia.

Tens of thousands of people have gone missing in the UK since the start of the pandemic. Most are found within days, sometimes hours. Others, like Nghia, have seemingly disappeared into thin air.

Searching for people in lockdown has presented formidable challenges to investigators. There are likely to be fewer witnesses, fewer public transport routes to scrutinise, and inquiries must be made remotely as attempts are launched to follow the faintest of electronic footprints.

Private investigators say they have been inundated after being asked to track and find thousands of missing people over the last year. One group, though, has tended to dominate their efforts: young men, often with mental health issues.

Tony Smith, operations director of Insight Investigations, said that his team of private detectives received about 16 missing person calls a day and, of these, the majority concerned young men who were struggling.

“We’ve had a dramatic increase in calls relating to males going missing, mainly young males who are having various breakdown problems. Students, particularly, have just disappeared,” he said.

Most men are swiftly traced to friends or trusted family members. Smith had just two cases where he couldn’t locate the missing man. One had taken his own life on the morning he was reported missing.

News of the scale of the issue follows the death of Richard Okorogheye whose body was found in a lake in Epping Forest last Monday, two weeks after he went missing.

Private investigator Paul Hawkes, who worked on the inquiry to find Okorogheye, said the 19-year-old had started to become introverted shortly before going missing, locking himself in his west London bedro om. Even so, Hawkes didn’t predict the tragic outcome.

“I was working totally and wholly on the premise he was alive. I had hope. It hit me quite hard when I heard the news from his mother. These cases are so rare,” said Hawkes, whose agency Research Associates specialises in finding “the disappeared”.

Latest provisional data from the National Crime Agency’s Missing Persons Unit indicates that while the government’s stay-at-home orders made it harder for people to disappear, they did not lower the number of the most vulnerable who went missing. “The data does not show any decrease in high-risk cases during this period,” said a National Crime Agency spokesperson.

Almost immediately after the beginning of the first lockdown, it became obvious that with the safety net of schools removed and community groups shut, missing children were at particular risk. Exactly a year ago, images of 10 missing and acutely vulnerable minors were distributed as fears grew for their safety. Twelve months on, just Nghia remains missing.

Race also comes into play when tracing people. The Okorogheye case prompted allegations that, had the teenager been white, the police may have been more proactive, and the media more supportive.

The charity Missing People said complaints of bigotry were not new. “We are concerned that some families from black and other ethnic minority communities have told us that they have faced discrimination in the response from agencies when they have reported a loved one missing, and in the media coverage of their loved one’s disappearance,” it said.

The police watchdog is assessing if the Met needs to be investigated over its handling of Okorogheye’s disappearance. After making the initial missing persons report on 22 March, his mother alleged that when his disappearance was first reported, police “did nothing”.

Hawkes also agreed that the initial policing response seemed sluggish. “When I first looked at it, it became evident quite quickly that the police were slow on the uptake.” Analysis by the National Crime Agency (NCA) confirms an over-representation of black and asian minority individuals among missing persons. In fact, black individuals account for 14% of cases compared with a UK general population of 3%. A new study was announced by Goldsmiths University into the link last week.

A cursory look at the Twitter feed of Missing Persons since the start of March suggests that the over-representation may be even greater. Out of 31 people reported missing, 19 were black and Asian – more than 60% of the caseload.

Although no data is yet available to show how many people actually went missing during the pandemic – Missing Persons says that reports are down a quarter – the numbers are still likely to be high. The NCA’s analysis shows that in England and Wales there were a total of 155,211 missing individuals – 425 a day – reported during the 12 months leading up to the first lockdown.

Experts also anticipate a surge in missing-people cases as lockdown is lifted. “Our main concern for the future is that the longer-term impacts of Covid – mental health and financial in particular – may result in people experiencing a crisis pushing them to go missing,” said a charity spokesperson.

Others warn that the cumulative pressures of the last 12 months have already started to tip even the most seemingly collected individuals over the edge.

“There are a lot of cases where people are acting entirely out of character. People who were previously stable are suddenly disappearing. People with families have been forced together in unnatural circumstances. It’s total cabin fever,” said Hawkes.

In the latest NCA’s Missing Persons Unit report, published two weeks ago, more than a quarter of adults went missing for mental health reasons, a proportion certain to increase.

The second mostcommon reason (15.9%) was relationship troubles, a figure similarly likely to rise. “It tends to be more boyfriends or partners rather than married men who go missing, though sometimes it’s men with second lives. One woman recently complained that she doesn’t know where her boyfriend lives, but that was because he lives with his other girlfriend and their kid,” said Hawkes.

Police and private investigators agree that it is difficult to stay missing for an extended period of time. Of about 1,500 missing-people cases Hawkes has investigated since the start of the pandemic, 98% have been found. Police say that most are either found or return within two days, although 43% of all missing adults are ultimately tracked down by officers.

The NCA says that, thankfully, despite the restrictions of lockdown its investigations into the missing have not been compromised. “Our operational work has not been impacted,” said a spokesperson.

Related: Ethnicity and poverty are Covid risk factors, new Oxford modelling tool shows

Part of the remit of its Missing Persons Unit is solving unidentified body cases such as the mystery man who lay down at Clapham North tube a year ago. These are among the most perplexing to clear up.

Days before last December’s lockdown was announced, the body of a “slim” black man wearing a green T-shirt was found in Richmond-upon-Thames. His identity remains a puzzle. In September the body of an unknown 50-something 6ft 2in Asian man was pulled from the “heavy surf” of Sennen Beach in Cornwall. Three months before, a trawler in the Irish Sea netted a size-eight white Lacoste trainer complete with a foot and lower leg. The mystery remains unsolved.

Such cases are highly unusual, unlike the stream of missing-person reports. At the time of writing, the most recent person to disappear was Joy Reece, 15, from Haringey in north London. The likelihood is that she may have been found by the time this article is published. Almost certainly there will have been no breakthrough in the search to find the identity of the Clapham North body, and no new clue to the whereabouts of Nghia.

The Missing People 24-hour free helpline number is 116 000, or you can contact the charity via the website here