Coronavirus: Are protests legal amid lockdown?

By Dominic Casciani
Home affairs correspondent

  • Published
Media caption,

Protesters in Bristol pull down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston

Protests against the death of George Floyd, the black man who died while being restrained by a Minnesota police officer, have taken place in the UK, organised by campaign group Black Lives Matter.

This is despite Home Secretary Priti Patel and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick asking people not to go on to the streets.

So are such demonstrations actually legal given the coronavirus lockdown?

What do the lockdown laws say about protests?

England now has the loosest lockdown in the UK, with no restrictions on going outside. But the rules (officially known as regulations) don't explicitly say anything about protests.

However, regulation seven restricts public gatherings to no more than six people.

The law defines a "gathering" as a meeting involving "social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity". And so that means, pretty clearly, that a protest is currently illegal along with any other activity that could increase the virus's spread.

"There's a reason that we have laws in place temporarily to say that gatherings of over six people should not happen," says Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

What are the penalties for joining a protest?

Police have been trying to encourage people to follow the law and the public health message, and they can break up gatherings. Before Mr Floyd's death, this tended to mean officers directing large parties to stop and ordering people to go home - such as with this rave in the West Midlands last month.

Officers can hand out fixed-penalty notices - a form of on-the-spot ticket - that start at £100 to anyone who won't follow the health regulations. They can also arrest and charge someone with an offence, potentially leading to a large fine in a magistrates' court.

So taking all that together, officers have the power to break up and ticket people for being part of a protest, on coronavirus health grounds.

Image source, Wales News Service
Image caption,
Hundreds of people joined a protest in Cardiff

Is there not a right to protest in the UK?

Yes, but this is where it gets rather tricky because that right is often misunderstood. And the coronavirus health emergency has complicated things further.

Barrister Audrey Cherryl Mogan explains the European Convention on Human Rights (in British law as the Human Rights Act) says that public bodies must respect both the right to assemble and to express one's views.

But these two rights are not absolute. The government or another public body can interfere with them if it has a proper legal reason to do so.

"So it becomes a balancing exercise," she says. "If what's being done is to enforce the health regulations, then you can argue that [stopping a protest] would be reasonable and proportionate."

Ms Mogan argues the police should approach these protests in the same way that officers would consider a park full of sunbathing friends.

"If we are talking about stopping a protest, there has to be a fair and just application of the law to these people."

If not, she warns, closing down a Black Lives Matter protest on coronavirus grounds could be seen as unfair and a disproportionate use of the regulations.

So where does that leave the police?

Chief constables today talk about their public duty to "facilitate" demonstrations - and say that they only turn to force - such as bringing in riot police - if they have to quell trouble.

And over the first weekend in June, it was pretty clear that the police didn't want to break up peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations even though, on paper at least, they would breach coronavirus laws.

Dame Cressida and other police chiefs had asked people not to come out and protest on the streets.

She said that: "Coming together in a gathering is not only unlawful but also, perhaps more importantly, it is putting yourself and your family at unnecessary risk and other people around you."

She said officers, if faced with large gatherings, would seek to uphold the law but would make "a case-by-case decision" as to what was the right thing to do.

Why are the protests taking place?

Some of the organisers of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations argued over the weekend that they were completely justified in asking people to protest.

They said it was because racism - and the violence that comes with it - is like a virus that can only be combatted and defeated by taking a stand.

Media caption,

Raheem Sterling: "The only disease right now is the racism that we're fighting"

England and Manchester City striker Raheem Sterling summed up that sentiment in a BBC interview, saying: "The only disease right now is the racism that we are fighting."

So, in short, many protesters believe that it is their duty to come out and have their say - and that their decision should be recognised as a lawful and reasonable excuse to be out on the streets.