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 protests 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 demonstrations for racial equality led by the Black Lives Matter movement, racist counter-protests 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, co-founder of All Black Lives UK, a youth-led campaign group born out of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, said: â€œWith 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.â€
Morris said protests organised by All Black Lives UK had faced a heavy-handed response, despite meeting the criteria set out by the exemption.
â€œSince 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 weâ€™ve always found a way around it. They could stop us protesting, but they canâ€™t stop us fighting for our own rights.â€
Morris said criticism of the current government was implicit in the All Black Lives UK protests. â€œWe have criticism for the way the government has mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, for how black people are more likely to suffer from this pandemic, weâ€™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 donâ€™t want to hear us talk.â€
Rosalind Comyn, police and campaigns manager at Liberty, the human rights group, said: â€œWe should all be able to stand up for what we believe in. In a healthy democracy protest is one way we do that, and thatâ€™s why any measures which stop people expressing dissent are deeply worrying and should be treated with suspicion.
â€œWe have always supported proportionate measures to protect lives, but people must not be criminalised en masse for voicing opposition to government action â€“ even in the context of a pandemic. Whatâ€™s more, parliament has been sidelined at every turn of this governmentâ€™s pandemic response, making protest even more important than ever to ensure everyoneâ€™s voices are heard.
â€œThe government and police must commit to uphold their duty to facilitate protest so we can stand up to power.â€
An amendment was previously made to the coronavirus regulations to clarify the rules for attending a protest. The amendment effectively permitted individuals to gather in a group of more than six for the purposes of protest as long as the following 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 which 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 it is understood these exemptions will not appear in the rules for the second lockdown, under which only two people from separate households can meet outside.
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 â€œleft in the middleâ€ 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. â€œItâ€™s going to be difficult,â€, the source said.
Police are already saying they are 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: â€œThe 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.
â€œPeople 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.â€
A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion UK, the climate crisis movement, which has staged protests since the pandemic outbreak, said: â€œOnly a government keenly aware of its epic failing would bring in such extreme restrictions to protest.
â€œThese 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.â€