Banning protests during England’s second national lockdown has been described as “deeply worrying” by the UK’s leading civil liberties organisation.
HuffPost UK understands that protests consisting of more than two people is set to be forbidden during the month-long lockdown which begins on Thursday.
The Times reported on Tuesday that home secretary Priti Patel had briefed chief constables over the weekend, instructing them to enforce the rules following months of huge protests.
But there are fears that the crackdown on demonstrations could criminalise people simply for opposing the government.
Rosalind Comyn, Liberty policy and campaigns manager, told HuffPost UK: “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.”
Comyn added: “What’s more, parliament has been side lined 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.”
The right to protest is enshrined under the European Court of Human Rights (which is separate from the European Union and will not be impacted by Brexit), but this right is not absolute and can be removed in limited circumstances, such as in instances where a demonstration could harm public health.
The UK has seen a number of large-scale protests – some with tens-of-thousands of attendees – since the start of the pandemic, with demonstrations held to demand racial justice, environmental action and an end to lockdown rules.
Patel criticised Andy Marsh, chief constable of Avon and Somerset, in June after a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol saw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston torn down and thrown into the river with no resistance from police.
Almost all meetings between households will be banned in England from Thursday under the second nationwide lockdown announced on Saturday, with gatherings banned.
The specifics of the rules around circumstances such as protests have not yet been released, but are expected to be made public ahead of the new restrictions coming into force a minute after midnight on November 5.
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.”