Protests of more than two people will not be permitted under new coronavirus lockdown rules, the Home Office has said.
Coronavirus restrictions set to come in effect from Thursday will not include an exemption for large protests, defined as more than two people.
Previously, while large gatherings were not explicitly permitted under “rule of six” guidelines, official guidance stated that an exemption could apply to, “protests and political activities organised in compliance with COVID-19 secure guidance and subject to strict risk assessments.”
This is set to change under the new lockdown coming into effect in England on Thursday if it passes through the House of Commons when it is debated on Wednesday.
It is understood that other than funerals, large gatherings like protests will not be exempt from the legislation.
“The right to peaceful protest is one of the cornerstones of our democracy,” a spokesperson for the Home Office told Vice News. “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,” they said. “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.”
According to the Times, Home Secretary Priti Patel briefed chief constables over the weekend on the new rules and expectations over the policing of protests, but has been met with concern regarding the impact of the measures on individual freedoms.
Kevin Blowe, a coordinator for Netpol, a police monitoring group, told VICE News: “We know the Home Secretary is deeply antagonistic towards the idea that freedom of assembly is a fundamentally important part of democratic participation.”
“An effective ban on all protests,” he continued, “which restricting numbers to two people essentially means, is deeply repressive and closes off one of the few ways that people can express their grievances about their government or corporate interests – at a time when both need more scrutiny, not less".
The decision comes in a year that has seen mass protest movements mobilise across the globe, from Black Lives Matter marches to far-right and anti-lockdown protests.
Rosalind Comyn, police and campaigns manager for human rights campaign Liberty, 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,” she said. “The Government and police must commit to uphold their duty to facilitate protest so we can stand up to power.”