Coronavirus crisis in UK is more about social and security challenges than public health

As the UK sinks deeper into crisis over the coronavirus pandemic, there are growing fears of a breakdown in law and order and broader acute security challenges.

The Independent reported on March 19 that the police will enact a “graduated withdrawal of service” from their normal duties “if the coronavirus outbreak worsens”.

The outbreak has significantly worsened in the intervening five days as demonstrated by Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s announcement yesterday of mandatory lockdown measures.

The deployment of the army – ostensibly to help the National Health Service (NHS) – has also raised fears of imminent social disorder, if not full-scale riots on Britain’s streets.

There are growing accounts of nervous queues outside and inside British supermarkets as panicky shoppers try to grab as much as they can, often at the expense of other shoppers.

The BBC reported on March 22 that hundreds of shoppers “flocked” to a Tesco store in Dudley (West Midlands) as it opened for NHS workers only.

But most of the shoppers were not connected to the NHS and were there to take advantage of the situation.

One eye witness described scenes of “mob rule” with “every man for themselves”.

Lack of social cohesion and national solidarity in Britain has given rise to fears that such scenes could escalate into civil disorder, looting and full-scale riots.

There are also fears of a sharp spike in ordinary crime as criminals take advantage of a paralyzed judicial system. A report by the Policy Exchange thinktank (which is close to the Tory party) claims that the pandemic could increase gang violence in the UK.

In a sign the judiciary will struggle to contain the rise in crime, the Guardian reported on March 22 that pressure is growing on the justice ministry to limit court hearings to the most urgent cases only.

Social distancing rules mean that courts in England and Waes are either postponed or conducted via video link, which presents its own challenges.

Another pandemic-related crime worry is a big spike in scamming and other fraudulent activities designed to take advantage of people’s fears.

Sky News reported on March 19 that scammers are posing as “coronavirus testers” to “cash in” on the crisis by “targeting vulnerable people”.  

The pandemic is also set to impact on the higher end of criminality. The Royal United Services Institute (which is connected to the Ministry of Defense) has just released a report outlining the various ways organized crime will seek to exploit the pandemic.

The combination of societal disorder, spike in ordinary crime and energized organized crime networks, presents unique challenges to British policing and security forces.

There is a risk the situation may spiral out of control especially if large number of police personnel contract the virus and become a burden on the very system they are supposed to protect.

Eventually the military may have to significantly intensify its intervention, as envisaged by Operation Broadshare.

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