Last weekend, police were heavily criticised for arresting women attending a vigil following the killing of Sarah Everard for breaking coronavirus lockdown laws. This weekend, protests are planned in central London by anti-lockdown campaigners. But do those who attend risk being arrested?
The Met has issued a statement warning “gathering for the purpose of a protest is not an exception under the Covid-19 regulations” which currently do not allow more than two people to meet outdoors.
The force said it was “telling people not to attend central London in order to gather to protest” to prevent “spreading the virus that has claimed so many lives”.
A “significant policing operation will be in place throughout the day to engage with people who are in breach of the regulations”, the Met warned.
Those who flout the rules and gather “will be encouraged to return home, if they do not, they face necessary and proportionate enforcement action. This could be a fixed penalty notice, or arrest”.
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The anti-lockdown protest has been planned to convene at midday in Hyde Park and march to Westminster.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor, said: “The Met is committed to working with groups who wish to assemble to protest or for other purposes.
“But these are not normal times. Within the last few weeks, London has seen high infection rates with many people in hospital because of coronavirus.
“Given the very real threat to public health, it is vital we all take action to avoid situations where the virus can easily spread.
“People who gather as part of the protest risk the health of Londoners.
“That is why we have a policing plan in place to disperse crowds and where necessary, take proportionate enforcement action”
He warned protestors would be watched just as closely as those organising the march.
He said: “By now everyone knows their part to play in stopping the spread of the virus and thousands have sacrificed much over the last 12 months to do so.
“We do not want to be in a position where enforcement is necessary – we would rather our officers be in London’s communities, tackling local issues.
“That is why I would urge people to reconsider joining a protest and stay at home.”
After the force came under immense criticism for its handling of the Sarah Everard vigil last weekend, pressure is mounting for police to stop intervening in democratic protests.
More than 60 MPs and peers have written to the home secretary calling for a change in COVID-19 legislation to allow protests to happen during lockdown.
The letter, organised by campaign groups Liberty and Big Brother Watch, says there is a human right to protest.
The letter to Ms Patel was signed by several Conservative MPs – including Steve Baker, and Sir Christopher Chope – as well as Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey and a number of Labour MPs and peers.
The letter says: “The police have no legal certainty as to their duties and powers, protestors have no legal certainty as to their rights, and there is inconsistent application of the Regulations across the country. This cannot continue.”
In response, the Home Office maintained its position that it would be illegal to leave home without a reasonable excuse until coronavirus rules change on March 29.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has instructed the police watchdog, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), to “conduct a lessons-learned review” into the policing of last weekend’s vigil.