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Dozens of people have gathered across the UK to protest coronavirus lockdown measures, including a group of around 50 people in Hyde Park.
Anti-vaxxer and 5G conspiracy theory signs could be seen at the small protests, which were attended by a heavy police presence. Nineteen people were arrested in the capital.
Self-styled “mass gatherings” had been organised across the UK by a protest group called UK Freedom Movement, with up to 60 events advertised – the vast majority of which appear to have been attended by just a handful of people, or no one at all.
In the US, where anti-lockdown protests have become a more frequent occurrence, some campaigners and organisers have been linked to far-right groups and white nationalists.
Far-right figureheads in the US including Larry Lockman, who once called proposed US immigrant welcome centres a “war on whites”, was behind one rally in Augusta, while neo-fascist street gang The Proud Boys was behind similar protests in Florida.
Both protest groups called the lockdown unconstitutional and a breach of their civil rights, with Lockman calling it an attack on business and religion – language that has been adapted and applied by a fragmented minority to the situation in the UK.
It appears that the UK protests could also have roots in the far-right. Speculation has arisen that Jayda Fransen, former deputy leader of Britain First, is behind the UK Freedom Movement group as she was listed on the government’s Companies House website as the director of a new organisation of the same name on April 30. Fransen has flatly denied being behind the group.
The correspondence address listed for Fransen under Freedom Movement Ltd also matches a registered office address listed by Britain First Merchandise Ltd, which cites Britain First leader Paul Golding as a director and Fransen as a resigned director.
Nineteen people were arrested and another 10 given on-the-spot fines in Hyde Park, the Metropolitan Police said.
Deputy assistant commissioner Laurence Taylor said: “With the easing of restrictions we fully expected open spaces to be busy this weekend.
“It was pleasing to see that people were largely compliant with the government guidance. Where they weren’t, and after we engaged with them, they quickly were.
“It was disappointing that a relatively small group in Hyde Park came together to protest the regulations in clear breach of the guidance, putting themselves and others at risk of infection.
“Officers once again, took a measured approach and tried to engage the group to disperse. They clearly had no intention of doing so, and so it did result in 19 people being arrested, and a further ten being issued with a fixed penalty notice.”
Fransen has been a vocal opponent of the lockdown on her social media channels, although both she and another far-right figurehead called Richard Inman – who claims to be the actual founder of the UK Freedom Movement – have denied they are running this weekend’s events.
At least six people were arrested at the gathering in central London, including Piers Corbyn, brother of the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
He was taken away by police after showing up with a megaphone and proclaiming 5G and the coronavirus pandemic were linked, calling it a “pack of lies to brainwash you and keep you in order”.
He also said “vaccination is not necessary” and that “5G towers will be installed everywhere”, adding: “5G enhances anyone who’s got illness from Covid, so they work together.”
There is no evidence to link 5G and Covid-19 and scientists fear that a rise in measles among children can be attributed in part to unfounded fears about vaccines.
He was taken away after declining to leave when asked by a police officer and refusing to give his details when asked.
A flyer advertising the protest called for “no to mandatory vaccines, no to the new normal, and no to the unlawful lockdown”.
David Samson, 50, who said he works in finance, told the PA news agency he went because “I never thought I’d see in my generation the suppressing of civil rights” over a “fake virus”.
“This is nothing compared to what’s coming,” he said.
There was a large round of boos whenever protesters were arrested, and repeated shouts of “jail Bill Gates”.
While several dozen people attended a protest in London, other events consisted of a much smaller number.
A separate protest in Southampton saw about a dozen protesters gather on Southampton Common, holding placards saying “Stop the Lies”, “Say no to tyranny” and “Fight 4 Freedom”.
One protester, Dee, who did not wish to give her surname, said her job in the hair and beauty industry had been hit by the crisis.
She told PA: “I am here because I am worried about civil liberties being taken away.
“Reading the coronavirus act that has gone through Parliament, it seems there are changes being made which infringe our freedom.
“And I am worried the media has run away with the Covid-19 thing and blown it all out of proportion.”
Two gatherings were organised in Bristol, with one attended by around a dozen people, and another in the city centre was attended by no one at all, according to the Bristol Post.
In Belfast, police monitored a crowd of about 20 people who had gathered in Ormeau Park to denounce the lockdown measures, which broke up after an hour without incident.
A small number of protestors also attended events in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with the Daily Record reporting chants of “Nicola Sturgeon is a traitor” and “we are not livestock.”
Pictures and videos of the protests have been shared widely online, where they were met with anger and derision.
“People are dying and these stupid people are protesting about giving them freedom,” wrote one Twitter user, while one placard in particular attracted hundreds of tweets.
The arrangement of the placard, which was supposed to read “I am a free man, I am not a number”, instead appeared to read: “I am a free, I am not man, a number”, and quickly began to trend on Twitter.