Emerging civil disorder due to COVID-19

20th April 2020

In light of the lockdown having recently been extended for a further three weeks in the UK, the British government fear that people in lockdown, combined with a worsening financial situation may lead to civil unrest.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has admitted that COVID-19 will cause “hardship ahead” and have “significant impact” on the economy. Police forces are also reported to be worried about prolonged confinement leading to “isolation fatigue” in which people frustrated with staying indoors start to venture out in public unnecessarily. This could cause a knock-on effect leading to people flouting the lockdown restrictions, forcing the police to be heavier handed in their enforcement of the lockdown – as has already been seen on the continent.1


Potential for civil unrest has been increased due to the confusion around enforcement of the lockdown measures with the severity with which this is enforced largely dependent on where you live due to rules not being applied consistently nationwide.2 It has emerged that some police forces have taken more proactive measures than others, such as the arguably draconian measures enforced by police in Yorkshire who were reported to have forced individuals off their own front garden. However, these more severe examples are isolated incidents and the police force has since apologised.3


Civil unrest seems to be the next problem facing many countries who have experienced long periods of isolation and something the UK government will be keen to learn from before it happens here. It seems the main cause of this unrest is not the removal of civil liberties or the fear of the virus itself but that of severe economic hardship. The key to averting civil unrest seems to be in the ability to help the population through the provision of basic necessities and financial security.  The health secretary Matt Hancock has issued a statement explaining the government is looking at how their lockdown measures have impacted the overall health of the nation due to the possible hardship faced by many.4


Currently, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a decrease in recorded crime by as much as 20% due to the restrictions in place as a result of the lockdown.5 However, with so many not receiving paychecks the fear is that people will be forced into making money illicitly as a means of self-preservation with thefts of hospital equipment and the scamming of older, more vulnerable members of society.6


Further to this, British farmers have also warned that crops could be left to rot in fields as there are not enough farm workers to harvest the crops with potentially serious effects to the UK’s food supply chain in the coming months. A shortage of seasonal workers has seen large fresh food producers chartering flights to bring in workers from Eastern Europe to help with the demand. However, there are fears that efforts like this will not be enough with the National Farmers Union calling for a modern-day “land army” of UK workers.7 Though employment firms have seen a huge surge in interest for farming jobs which could plug the shortfall, it is not yet sure how employing these workers will fit in with the current government restrictions on social distancing.


Unemployment was already on the rise before the Coronavirus outbreak, hiding an already stagnant job market, with the Office for National Statistics stating there were 1.34 million people unemployed in the last quarter to January. This is now set to have increased by another 2 million people since the start of the pandemic, according to the Institute for Employment Studies, on top of those employees now being furloughed.8  The government only fund 80% of wages for those on this scheme and around 151,000 self-employed may not be eligible for financial support. Individuals will inevitably start to struggle to pay their rent, mortgage, or bills, with no guarantee they will have a job to return to at the end of the crisis. These unemployment figures also do not account for hidden unemployment, with fears that at the end of the academic year students, that may or may not have completed their studies, will have no jobs to go into come summer. Inevitably at some point, the lockdown will have to be relaxed, allowing people more movement which could lead to people seeking the ability to voice their concerns through public demonstrations at the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.