Research by the Commission for Countering Extremism said groups of all kinds had been seeking to “breed hate” and spread conspiracy theories feeding into their worldview.
“We have heard reports of British far-right activists and neo-Nazi groups promoting anti-minority narratives by encouraging users to deliberately infect groups, including Jewish communities; and of Islamists propagating anti-democratic and anti-western narratives, claiming that Covid-19 is divine punishment from Allah on the west for their alleged ‘degeneracy’,” said a report published on Thursday.
“Islamists have also claimed that Covid-19 is punishment on China for their treatment of Uighur Muslims. Other conspiracy theories suggest the virus is part of a Jewish plot or that 5G is to blame.”
The Independent has seen numerous posts on far-right social media channels celebrating reports of disproportionately high black and ethnic minority deaths from coronavirus in the UK.
One neo-Nazi group commented on health advice distributed to Muslims by saying: “Hopefully they disregard this notice”.
Others have sought to blame Muslims for spreading the virus, and shared fake footage claiming to show places of worship remaining open in violation of lockdown rules.
The Commission for Countering Extremism warned that extreme right-wing politicians and websites had capitalised on the pandemic to “push forward their anti-immigrant and populist message”, normalising intolerance and hatred towards ethnic, racial or religious communities.
It added: “Practitioners have told us how some Islamist activists may be exploiting legitimate concerns regarding securitisation to deliberately drive a wedge between communities and the British state. Others told us about the difficulties of delivering vital counter-extremism work during lockdown.”
The head of the Prevent counter-extremism programme previously said that referrals had dropped sharply during the lockdown, amid concerns that people posing a potential threat would not be spotted by teachers, social workers, NHS services and others forced to reduce contact.
At the same time, there is concern that lockdown has left people increasingly vulnerable to radicalisation as they spend more time online and become more isolated.
“Whilst lockdown rules are gradually eased, it will take some time before life returns to normal,” the report said.
“The short- and long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic could create conditions conducive for extremism. Extremists will seek to capitalise on this to cause further long-term instability, fear and division in Britain.
“The socioeconomic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic will present significant extremism risks.”
The Commission for Countering Extremism called for action from the government as well as social media companies, after one study found that 90 per cent of posts containing misinformation were not taken down when reported.
It said the government must urgently publish a new counter-extremism strategy, which should address a proposed new definition of “hateful extremism”, and develop interventions.
Sara Khan, the lead commissioner, also called for conspiracy theories to be classified according to the harm they cause, and challenged before they can cause harm, division or “breed hate”.
“For example, by understanding and countering anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, the government will be better placed to ensure there is sufficient uptake of any future vaccinations,” she added.
“We need to be on the front foot to counter the activity of hateful extremists who seek to divide and undermine everything our country stands for, and we must begin work on it now.”
Ms Khan has repeatedly called on ministers to “urgently commit” to tackling extremism that falls short of existing terror laws, and said a “complete and urgent overhaul” of government policy is needed.
She previously branded the current definition of extremism as too broad and described the government’s response as “weak” and “insufficient”.
Last month, a legal review was launched over concerns there were gaps in the law which allow extremists to push their agenda and sow division.
The former head of counterterrorism, Sir Mark Rowley, is leading the inquiry which will examine whether existing legislation adequately addresses “hateful extremism”.
A government spokesperson said: “Through our world leading Counter Extremism Strategy the government continues to challenge and disrupt extremists who sow division, promote hatred and undermine our fundamental values.
“We are working closely with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to ensure police forces are providing reassurance to communities targeted by hate crime during the pandemic and with social media companies to counter the spread of disinformation and false conspiracies.”