“If serious disorder does develop, it will have a detrimental impact on public health, facilitating the spread of disease, making the re-imposition of measures to control the spread of COVID-19 next to impossible and would be likely to require military support.”

Public Disorder and Public Health: Contemporary Threats and Risks SPI-B Policing and Security sub-Group

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Executive summary

● The threats currently facing the UK are diverse, inter-connected and dynamic.

● Public health will be particularly adversely affected by spontaneous public assemblies, particularly if these develop into violent confrontation.

● Local lockdown carries with it a series of threats to social cohesion and public order.

● Some media narratives are reinforcing claims that Asian and Black people in areas of local lockdown are potentially responsible for disproportionately spreading the virus.

● There has been a step-change in threat levels since the last sustained period of serious rioting in the UK in 2011.

● The police are in a far weaker position in terms of capacity to deal with these threats than in 2011 and police weaknesses, when recognised, were a factor in the spread of urban disorder during those riots.

● If upstream intervention is not taken, amplification of the conditions for serious public disorder in multiple locations is likely to develop.

● If serious disorder does develop, it will have a detrimental impact on public health, facilitating the spread of disease, making the re-imposition of measures to control the spread of COVID-19 next to impossible and would be likely to require military support.

● Policing has a vital role to play in preventing disorder but coordinated action is needed across Whitehall and with local authorities. This is not simply a policing issue.


In the next few weeks and months the UK will face grave challenges to public order. The situation is volatile and highly complex. Tensions resulting from the pandemic and lockdown have become inextricably bound with structural inequalities and international events. 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 challenges posed to public order are multiple and overlapping. As lockdown eases, the numbers of spontaneous large-scale public assemblies such as protests, celebrations and unlicensed music events (e.g. raves, block and house parties) are increasing. The removal of restrictions on pubs from 4 July will complicate all these 2 problems and introduce entirely new ones. At the same time, the legitimacy of the Police – and of the laws and regulations they are charged with enforcing – is being challenged from many sides.

This rapidly evolving situation makes it urgently necessary to update our previous paper ‘Home Office Commission-10/06/2020: Public health, protest, policing’. The use of localised lockdown to control resurgent or persistent sites of infection also makes it necessary to update our previous paper on the subject of ‘Neighbourhood-level release’. Our reflections in this briefing paper offer a preliminary assessment of risks currently facing the UK and the means by which they can be potentially mitigated.

Core challenges

Emerging conditions and an array of historical events have resulted in a high risk of civil disorder across multiple sites, with serious implications for public health. This potential disorder could be comparable or bigger in scale to the rioting of August 2011 but police capacities and capability has diminished since 2011 with the loss of very high numbers of staff.

The latter includes not just ‘frontline’ response officers but neighbourhood and intelligence staff. The structural and losses police have suffered are relevant – closing down of custody suites and specialist prisoner-processing units, and the restriction of access to resources such as police helicopters. As a result, situational awareness (i.e. the ability to detect rising tensions), as well as operational response capacity in the police is significantly diminished.

The national public order mobilisation plan remains resourced at 2011 levels. However, in the event of a large-scale national mobilisation, officers will inevitably be redeployed from other roles. Given the overall reduction in staff, this will significantly impact on police capability 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 present situation

● Data has emerged showing the disproportionate impact of the epidemic and lockdown upon black and some other ethnic minority communities, exposing and widening existing levels of inequality.

● Data on Policing of people from black and minority ethnic communities in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic shows a significant increase in the use of stop and search against young black men: according to NPCC data from 15 May, such people received at least 22% of the coronavirus lockdown fines. The data shows that BME people were fined at a rate of 26 per 100,000, while the rate for white people was 16.8 per 100,000. The Crown Prosecution Service 3 has found that many people were wrongly charged and convicted under emergency coronavirus laws.

● In the last two weeks, the UK has experienced a series of protests framed by political issues relating to ethnic inequality and national identity. In late May and early June, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that emerged in the USA found resonance in the UK, resulting in significant protests in cities such as London and Bristol. Criminal damage during these protests and police operational decisions provoked condemnation of police and resulted in counter protests by the extreme right-wing (XRW), the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, and veterans (the latter ought not to be considered ‘right-wing’).

● The sense of injustice in BME communities is reflected across many other communities which also perceive injustice who are coalescing under the BLM movement.

● At the same time, XRW groups are coalescing and mobilising at a scale not witnessed since the early EDL protests around 2010. There is a substantial overlap between some of the issues foregrounded by these groups (e.g. protection of heritage, memorials) and much larger sections of the population, e.g. among veterans.

● There are several examples of effective engagement where ‘organisers’ with lawful intentions have engaged and assisted in the achievement of safe and peaceful events but there are also examples where ‘harder’ elements have refused engagement and where unlawful agendas exist.

● Large-scale confrontations provoked by the XRW in London and then subsequently in Glasgow, Newcastle and other cities were partly responses to the previous actions of hardcore elements of BLM and the Anti-fascist movement and perceptions of weakness among the police. However, there are other drivers for these protests, including Loyalism in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and a more general feeling that the white working-class has been ignored and ‘left behind’. The sectarian nature of the unrest in Glasgow, for example, is becoming increasingly evident.

● Increased polarisation of political discourse makes conflict and protest more likely and this may mutate into new and more violent forms. There are clear and evident racist undertones to the emerging tensions.

● There has been a series of public assemblies in the form of ‘unlicensed music events’ in the form of ‘Raves’ and ‘Block Parties’. These have taken place in multiple locations; some have led to conflict and have resulted in deaths. There is also some evidence of intersection with BLM protests and ideologies as well as organisation and funding by Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) to create a market for drug supply.

● There have been fatal stabbing incidents in Reading, London and Glasgow, two of which were perpetrated by asylum-seekers, which is being exploited by far right groups.

● A major incident was declared with regard to a large gathering of people on a beach in Bournemouth. The crowds here were predominantly white. 4

● Premiership and Championship football has resumed. The securing of the titles or promotion have led to large-scale gatherings and associated conflicts in Coventry and Liverpool.

● On July 4th the Government is further lifting restrictions, including the reopening of licensed premises. This has been framed by some as ‘Independence Day,’ implying celebration and implied entitlement to excess.

● Simultaneously, localised forms of ‘lockdown’ have begun, specifically in the city of Leicester, with a large South Asian population which inhabit areas having the highest density of cases. This is already a source of political tension between the local South Asian community and government. There is extensive racist commentary on social media. Videos have also been circulated on social media showing the South Asian community flouting social distancing in an attempt to stir conflict.

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