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Protest exemption set to be removed from England lockdown rules
Expected move is met with fierce criticism from campaigners and human rights groups
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Jamie Grierson and Vikram Dodd
Tue 3 Nov 2020 19.41 GMTFirst published on Tue 3 Nov 2020 12.56 GMT
A Black Lives Matter protest in Westminster, London on 12 July
There have been a series of a high-profile protests since the pandemic erupted in the UK including demonstrations for racial equality led by the Black Lives Matter movement. Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images
Protections for protesters are set to be removed from the coronavirus rules under the second national lockdown, it has emerged, provoking anger from human rights groups and campaigners.
An exemption that permits demonstrations to take place with additional conditions designed to mitigate the spread of the virus is expected to be omitted from fresh regulations being drawn up for the lockdown that will commence from this Thursday.
There have been a series of a high-profile protests since the pandemic erupted in the UK including rallies for racial equality led by the Black Lives Matter movement, racist counter-demonstrations and marches against lockdown measures directed by conspiracy theorists and extremists.
While there will be no explicit ban on protests in the regulations, the removal of the exemption will render organising large-scale lawful protest almost impossible.
The expected move, first revealed by the Times, has been met with fierce criticism from campaigners and human rights groups.
Tyrek Morris, the co-founder of All Black Lives UK, a youth-led campaign group born out of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, said: “With regards to protesting, and protesting through the pandemic, one thing that is clear, we have no support from the government in any way shape or form.”
Morris said protests organised by All Black Lives UK had faced a heavy handed response, despite meeting the criteria set out by the exemption.
“Since the BLM movement arose again, the government has been completely against our protest, against protest full stop, and at every chance possible have tried to stop us. But we’ve always found a way around it. They could stop us protesting, but they can’t stop us fighting for our own rights.”
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Morris said criticism of the current government was implicit in the All Black Lives UK protests. “We have criticism for the way the government has mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, for how black people are more likely to suffer from this pandemic, we’ve been very vocal about Boris Johnson and his racist tendencies, his previous comments. So this does not come as a shock to me. They don’t want to hear us talk.”
Rosalind Comyn, the policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, the human rights group, said: “We should all be able to stand up for what we believe in. In a healthy democracy protest is one way we do that, and that’s why any measures which stop people expressing dissent are deeply worrying and should be treated with suspicion.
“We have always supported proportionate measures to protect lives, but people must not be criminalised en masse for voicing opposition to government action – even in the context of a pandemic. What’s more, parliament has been sidelined at every turn of this government’s pandemic response, making protest even more important than ever to ensure everyone’s voices are heard.
“The government and police must commit to uphold their duty to facilitate protest so we can stand up to power.”
A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion UK, which has staged climate protests since the pandemic outbreak, said: “Only a government keenly aware of its epic failing would bring in such extreme restrictions to protest.
“These are the actions of a government not willing to listen to its citizens. Studies over the last year have found that protests held outdoors do not lead to spikes in infection rates. This is clearly a political choice at a time when the government needs to be held to account on many fronts.”
When the regulations were refreshed for the new three-tiered system in England, the wording explicitly said a clause about gatherings of more than six was applicable to protests.
The clause in effect permitted individuals to gather in a group of more than six for the purposes of protest as long as the following rules were satisfied:
The gathering has been organised by a business, a charity, a benevolent or philanthropic institution, a public body, or a political body.
The organiser of the protest has carried out a risk assessment that meets the requirements of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
The organiser has taken all reasonable steps to limit the risk of transmission of coronavirus, in line with the risk assessment and with any relevant government guidance.
But while the clause remains in the new lockdown regulations, which were published late on Tuesday, the explicit reference to “protests” has vanished.
Whitehall sources told the Guardian the change was spearheaded by the Covid-19 taskforce and was designed to make the rules simpler.
But a senior police source told the Guardian they feared being “left in the middle” by any dropping of the protections for protests and also would rather there was a clear-cut regulation, rather than something vague and open to interpretation. “It’s going to be difficult,” the source said.
Police are saying they are already under strain from trying to impose existing Covid regulations, with regular crime returning to normal levels, having plunged during the first lockdown.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The right to peaceful protest is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. In these unprecedented circumstances, any gathering risks spreading the disease, leading to more deaths, so it is vital we all play our part in controlling the virus.
“People must follow the rules on meeting with others, which apply to all gatherings and therefore protests too. As they have done throughout the pandemic, the police and local authorities will engage, explain and encourage people to follow the rules before moving on to enforce the law.”
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