Local coronavirus lockdowns could increase racial tensions and lead to a “divided nation”, scientific advisers have warned.
A sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said ethnic minority communities were being stigmatised and added: “This situation could be exploited by far and extreme right-wing groups.”
The document was published on Friday but had been considered at a high-level meeting hours before tightened restrictions were announced for swathes of northern England on 30 July.
Matt Hancock announced the “northern lockdown” on the eve of the Islamic festival of Eid, sparking a frenzy on far-right social media networks as extremists blamed Muslims for spreading coronavirus.
“Given the current epidemiological trend of transmission concentrations within BAME communities, there is the risk of racial stigmatisation and discrimination,” said the statement by Sage’s SPI-B sub-group on local interventions, warning of “racial tensions and risks to social cohesion”.
It said that ethnic minority communities were already more susceptible to coronavirus due to “structural inequalities” and are also vulnerable to the effects of local restrictions.
The document said that they could undermine perceptions of national unity against coronavirus, causing feelings of isolation, fear, anger and shame in affected areas.
Experts urged the government to stop using the term “lockdown” to describe such measures because it could “be seen to emphasise blame”.
“Local emergency measures should be framed not as something that is done to people, but with and for them,” they added.
The document said that local restrictions could damage trust in the government and undermine compliance with public health measures.
It warned that “perceived inconsistency or unfairness in how and where restrictions are imposed could lead to social unrest and public disorder”.
A previous SPI-B report that was considered on 2 July said that riots worse than those seen in 2011 could break out following the Black LIves Matter protests and anger at police.
The new assessment said risks of unrest were heightened disadvantaged areas with historically difficult relations with the police, adding: “Resultant civil disorder may also feed and be exploited by extremist groups, especially where local outbreaks and subsequent restrictions are perceived to map onto BAME communities.”
It noted that no major disorder occurred in Leicester, despite heightened local tensions, but said “other local areas may not react in the same way”.
Experts called for the government to “clearly set out how and when the restrictions will be lifted will enable adherence and increase motivation”.
On Friday, the government announced that the ban on indoor mixing between households in areas of the north west, Manchester, West Yorkshire and Lancashire would remain for a third week.
While venues including casinos, bowling alleys and conference halls across England could reopen on Saturday following a two-week delay, they were not allowed to in “northern lockdown” areas or Leicester.
The Department of Health said the latest evidence does not show a sufficient decrease in the rate of coronavirus cases, and that in some areas including Oldham and Pendle, transmission was rising.
Officials said infection rates had fallen in Leicester, which saw the UK’s first local lockdown start in June, and that an update would be given next week following a review.
Edward Argar, the health minister, said: ”I'd like to thank everyone in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, East Lancashire and Leicester for their continued patience in following these vital rules put in place to tackle the spread of the disease - I know it hasn't been easy.
“We will review the measures again next week as part of our ongoing surveillance and monitoring of the latest data.
"It is essential we all remain vigilant, and I urge everyone in these areas to continue to follow the rules.”
Newark and Sherwood in Nottinghamshire have been designated “areas of concern” on the watchlist of local authority areas with above-average incidences of coronavirus.