Coronavirus: Government must ‘promote sense of collectivism’ in order to avoid public disorder

‘Large-scale rioting is unlikely,’ according to expert advice to government

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 20 March 2020 19:28 GMT
Coronavirus: Empty supermarket shelves amid panic buying

The British government should “promote a sense of collectivism” to avoid the risk of public disorder during the coronavirus outbreak, ministers have been told.

Amid fears that widespread panic buying could progress to looting, experts concluded “large scale rioting is unlikely” but warned of situations where tensions could rise.

They include significant reductions in the number of police officers, pressures on healthcare facilities, shortages of face masks or hand sanitiser and “perceptions of inadequate government response to contain the outbreak”.

“In order to limit the risk of public disorder, the government should provide clear and transparent reasons for different strategies,” said the document, which was written on 25 February.

“The government should ... promote a sense of collectivism. All messaging should reinforce a sense of community, that ‘we are all in this together’. This will avoid increasing tensions between different groups.”

The document also called for officials to “explain clearly why certain actions are being taken”, set clear expectations on how the response will develop, and “promote a sense the government is following a plan”.

The advice was drawn up by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), Ministry of Justice, Home Office and police.

It is among a host of documents that were published on Friday containing the advice behind the government’s coronavirus strategy.

Another paper said social isolation measures “would need to be in place for at least most of a year” to keep the number of critical care cases within NHS capacity.

The UK had been criticised over perceptions that its response was slower than that of other countries, and for advising social distancing and the isolation of vulnerable groups rather than enforcing a total “lockdown” like those in Spain and France.

But the advice given to the government said that the risk of rioting could be increased by police “actions that are experienced as excessive and which prevent the public from accessing services they believe they have a right to access” such as shops and hospitals.

New emergency laws give officers the power to arrest and isolate people with suspected coronavirus in order to protect public health.

The document predicted that “acts of altruism will likely predominate“ and called for police to “support rather than control” the general public.

Forces across the country have drawn up contingency plans assuming that they could lose up to a fifth of officers and staff, and many are likely to drop routine patrols so they can focus on responding to emergencies.

The document cautioned: “If there are low numbers of police due to workplace absences, there could be a perception that the police have become disempowered.

“This has the potential to ... lead to a rise in opportunistic crime by those who are already antagonistic towards the police.”

It was published amid reports of a rise in coronavirus-related fraud and scams seeing burglars pose as NHS workers testing for the virus, and thieves offering to get shopping for elderly people in order to keep their money.

The pandemic also sparked a spate of hate crimes against people of Chinese or Asian appearance, and hand sanitiser thefts have been reported by hospitals across Britain.

Police leaders are using data from Italy and other countries with more advanced coronavirus outbreaks to predict changes in call patterns, crime and demand.

Senior officers giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday said they will be forced to enact a “graduated withdrawal of service” from their normal duties if the coronavirus outbreak worsens.

Deputy Chief Constable Paul Netherton, the national lead for civil contingencies, said police expected the key challenge to be supporting the NHS.

He confirmed that discussions about drawing on support from the military were ongoing, but said there was no current indication that soldiers will be needed for policing and that they were more likely to be required for healthcare.

On Friday, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) issued a plea for employers to release voluntary special constables on paid leave so they can support the response to coronavirus.

Officials have not confirmed how many officers have so far been lost to illness and self-isolation, but the NPCC said forces would “come under increasing strain”.

There are currently more than 10,000 special constables in the UK, who have the powers of a regular police officer but work only as part-time volunteers in their local forces.

Police leaders are considering other measures to boost ranks, including relaxing rules on officers rejoining the service after retirement.

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