Serious public disorder could “overwhelm all attempts” to control the coronavirus and “catastrophically” undermine the government’s recovery plans, scientists advising ministers have warned.
A paper written by a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) sub-committee, and considered by SAGE itself on 2 July, said the current “volatile and highly complex situation” means Britain will face “grave challenges” in keeping public order during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Any disorder could be “comparable or bigger in scale” than the 2011 London riots, the scientists warned, with military support likely to be required.
The document was among a raft of SAGE documents published by the government on Friday, which reveal:
On the potential for disorder, the scientists warned that tensions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic have become “inextricably bound” with structural inequalities and international events, citing the recent Black Lives Matter protests and counter-demonstrations.
The scientists said that among black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, which have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic, there is an increasing sense of “racial injustice, inequality and discrimination”.
Extreme right-wing groups are mobilising on a scale not seen for a decade, they say, exploiting recent fatal stabbings in Reading, London and Glasgow.
“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,” the paper by Professors Clifford Stott and Mark Harrison said.
“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 paper, entitled Public Disorder and Public Health: Contemporary Threats and Risks, was considered by SAGE two days before pubs reopened in England.
Its authors warned that the return of drinkers to pubs will “complicate all these problems and introduce entirely new ones”.
They noted that large-scale protests, celebrations and unlicensed music events had been increasing at a time when the public health message was changing.
Having told Britons to “stay home” in the early weeks of lockdown, people were being advised to “stay alert” as restrictions were eased.
The scientists flagged the scapegoating of various communities, and anger over local lockdowns, as potential causes of disorder.
And in a prescient warning, they said localised lockdowns could cause problems if they are in place over Eid.
Separate households in parts of northern England are currently banned from meeting up indoors, following a last-minute announcement from the government on Thursday evening.
If there is disorder, officers will need to be deployed from different roles, the scientists warned, which would affect the ability of police to deliver “business as usual”.
“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 document said.
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News – SAGE members worried serious disorder could ‘overwhelm’ attempts to control coronavirus