Serious disorder could 'overwhelm' attempts to control coronavirus spread

1 August 2020, 09:27 | Updated: 1 August 2020, 09:35

A report has warned that social disorder could topple plans to stop the spread of coronavirus
A report has warned that social disorder could topple plans to stop the spread of coronavirus. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

Serious public disorder could "overwhelm all attempts" to control coronavirus and "catastrophically" undermine recovery plans, scientific advisers have warned.

A report considered by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergency (SAGE) labels the UK's current situation as "volatile and highly complex situation" and said the country will face "grave challenges" in maintaining public order in the near future.

The academics warn that tensions resulting from the pandemic have become "inextricably bound" with structural inequalities and international events, citing the Black Lives Matter movement that gained traction in May after the death of George Floyd in the United States.

The paper, by Professors Cliff Stott and Mark Harrison, reads: "While widespread urban disorder is not inevitable, currently, the situation in the UK is precariously balanced and the smallest error in policing (whether perceived or real, inside or outside the UK) or policy could unleash a dynamic which will make the management of Covid-19 all but impossible.

"Put simply, a serious deterioration of public order could overwhelm all attempts to control contagion, overwhelm hospitals, the criminal justice system and hinder revival of the economy."

The report also suggests there is an increasing sense of "racial injustice, inequality and discrimination" felt among black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, who are far more likely to die from the virus than white people.

Another report this week found that black, Asian and minority ethnic people (BAME) were 1.6 times more likely to be fined for breaching coronavirus regulations than others.

At the same time, the authors say extreme right-wing groups are mobilising rapidly - at a scale not seen for a decade - and are exploiting fatal stabbing incidents in Reading, London and Glasgow to push their agendas.

Any serious public disorder that develops would likely require military support, they say.

The authors observe that large-scale protests, celebrations and unlicensed music events have been increasing, while public health messaging has become less clear.

A major incident was declared when people massed on a beach in Bournemouth in June, while the resumption of football has led to large-scale gatherings and conflict, and illegal raves have seen people stabbed.

The paper, named 'Public Disorder and Public Health: Contemporary Threats and Risks', was considered by SAGE two days before pubs reopened in England.

At the time, the authors of the report warned that reopening pubs would complicate and introduce new problems.

They also warned that localised lockdowns could be problematic if they occur over Eid, which is what happened when last-minute measures were imposed in Greater Manchester, parts of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire on Thursday evening.

The move left many in the affected areas confused and frustrated, but there has been no disorder related to the new rules so far.

In Ilford on Friday night a police officer was injured while trying to break up a large street party of around 200 people celebrating Eid.

The report added, however, that communities could begin to feel scapegoated and that a sense of inequality or grievance in areas with more restrictions could take hold.

Any resulting disorder could be equal or greater than the 2011 London riots, with police capacity having diminished in the intervening years.

This will mean officers being redeployed from different roles, affecting police forces' ability to deliver "business as usual", they say.

"If such a situation were to develop a security crisis would ensue, undermining public trust in Government and catastrophically undermining its Covid-19 recovery plans," the paper concludes.

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