09:05, November 03 44 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-03 09:05:04
Protest exemption set to be removed from England lockdown rules

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: “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.”

Quick guide

What you can and can't do in England's new national Covid lockdown

New national restrictions are due to come into effect in England on Thursday, after MPs vote on them, and remain in place at least until 2 December.

What can I leave home for?
  • For childcare or education, where it is not provided online.
  • To go to work unless it can be done from home.
  • Outdoor exercise either with household members or with one person from another household.
  • For all medical reasons and appointments.
  • To escape injury or harm, such as domestic abuse.
  • To provide care for vulnerable people or volunteer.
  • To shop for food and essentials.
  • To see people in your support bubble.
  • Children will still be able to move between homes if their parents are separated.

Government say the list is not exhaustive, and other permitted reasons for leaving home may be set out later. People could face fines from police for leaving their home without a legally permitted excuse.

Can different households mix indoors?

No, not unless they are part of an “exclusive” support bubble, which allows a single-person household to meet and socialise with another household.

Parents are allowed to form a childcare bubble with another household for the purposes of informal childcare, where the child is 13 or under.

Can different households mix outdoors?

People are allowed to meet one person from another household socially and for exercise in outdoor public spaces, which does not include private gardens.

Can I attend funerals, weddings or religious services?

Up to 30 people will still be allowed to attend funerals, while stone settings and ash scatterings can continue with up to 15 guests.

Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies are not permitted except in “exceptional circumstances”. Places of worship must remain closed except for voluntary services, individual prayer and other exempt activities.

Can I travel in the UK or abroad for a holiday?

Most outbound international travel will be banned. There is no exemption for staying away from home for a holiday. This means people cannot travel internationally or within the UK, unless for work, education or other legally permitted exemptions.

Which businesses will close?

Everything except essential shops and education settings, which include nurseries, schools and universities, will close.

Entertainment venues will also have to close. Pubs, restaurants and indoor and outdoor leisure facilities will have to close their doors once more.

However, takeaway and delivery services will still be allowed, while construction and manufacturing will stay open.

Parents will still be able to access registered childcare and other childcare activities where reasonably necessary to enable parents to work. Some youth services may be able to continue, such as one-to-one youth work, but most youth clubs will need to close their doors.

Public services, such as jobcentres, courts, and civil registration offices will remain open.

There is no exemption for grassroots organised team sports. Elite sports will be allowed to continue behind closed doors as currently, including Premier League football matches.

Aaron Walawalkar

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, the climate crisis movement, which has staged 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.”

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 “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 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: “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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