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:
- Two days after the lockdown was introduced, on 25 March, scientists estimated 65,000 deaths by September in a worse case scenario. As it stands, there have been 46,119 coronavirus deaths in the UK and more than 300,000 recorded cases
- The scientists warned there needed to be “sufficient headroom” in the rate of infections for schools to reopen safely – adding there “may be a need to change measures at the end of the summer in order to be able to keep R below 1” while sending pupils back
- SAGE called for greater communication about the main symptoms of the virus – a new persistent dry cough and/or a fever – after finding that a third of Britons do not know what they are
- At one meeting, the scientists discussed modelling which showed contact tracing people with the virus and “COVID-secure measures” alone are “unlikely to be sufficiently effective to allow a return to ‘pre-COVID’ normality without increasing infection rates” if there is no vaccine
- In the event that lockdown measures are reimposed, “behavioural responses will not necessarily mirror those observed as measures were imposed”
- A paper discussed by the scientists found that singing may be as risky as coughing when it comes to spreading the virus, although it said more research is needed
- Scientists warned there needed to be a flu vaccination campaign targeted towards younger clinical risk groups to combat the risk of coronavirus co-infection this winter
- The “initial seeding” of the virus in the UK appears to have come largely from Spain, France and Italy, the scientists believe
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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