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‘Ban’ on protests during lockdown ‘should be treated with suspicion’

CAMPAIGN groups have criticised plans by the government to remove an exemption for “Covid-secure” protests during the new coronavirus lockdown starting on Thursday.

The Home Office has not explicitly banned protests in its new regulations for England’s second national lockdown, but removal of the previous exemption will make organising lawful large-scale protests almost impossible.

Protests such as those led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) UK movement and Extinction Rebellion, and those by anti-lockdown campaigners, have taken place since the pandemic broke out earlier this year.

Protests were exempt from the previous “rule of six” introduced by PM Boris Johnson in the late summer if they were organised in compliance with Covid-secure guidance.

This exemption has now been removed while, under the new lockdown, people can exercise or go outdoors with people they live with or one other person from another household.

Liberty’s police and campaigns manager Rosalind Comyn said that removing the exemption is “deeply worrying and should be treated with suspicion.”

She said: “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, described the government’s removal of the exemption as a “political choice”.

They 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.”

In a statement, the Home Office said that the rules will apply to protests, insisting that any gathering “risks spreading the disease.”

The spokesperson added: “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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