Freedom News has produced a thorough summary of the latest regulations in a post entitled Activism and the law (5 Sep), stating: ‘One of the difficulties of writing anything useful about the law at the moment is that it’s changing so damned quickly. Coronavirus regulations have to be reviewed by the government every 28 days and as a result, we are locked into a rapid refresh cycle in which new, rushed and poorly-drafted laws are imposed on the public – without parliamentary scrutiny – every couple of weeks.’
Freedom News’ section on the current rules on protests lists the three provisions that are setting out the necessary conditions a protest needs to meet in order to qualify as lawful at this moment in time:
‘There are a number of important exceptions to the general prohibition on both holding – and participating in – gatherings of more than 30 people. Importantly, for our purposes, Regulation 5B(4) stipulates that the prohibition on holding or being involved in the holding of gatherings doesn’t apply if the gathering organiser —
(i) is a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution, a public body or a political body,
(ii) has carried out a risk assessment which would satisfy the requirements of regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999(1), whether or not they are subject to those Regulations, and
(iii) has taken all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission of the coronavirus, taking into account the risk assessment carried out under paragraph (ii).
The reference to a “political body” in 5B(4)(i) is crucial, as it is this provision which allows for the possibility of lawful protests involving over 30 people.’
While the rules themselves are a balancing act between public health and other human rights, the inconsistent way the police applies them seem to part of a policy attacking the right to freedom of assembly.
After Piers Corbyn was fined £10,000 for organising an anti-lockdown rally last week, the organisers of a demo for Trans Rights were forced to cancel their event. After previously accepting the steps that had been taken to assess and minimise risk, the Metropolitan police called the organisers the day before the demo was due to take place on 5 September, and threatened to arrest anyone involved. Facing huge fines and ‘given the high risk to marginalised groups when encountered by the police’, they called it off.
On Saturday afternoon various groups under the umbrella of Palestine Action gathered to protest outside the head office of Elbit Systems – an Israeli-owned arms company. There were no more than 50 people, and some of those were holding a banner on the opposite side of the road. Police arrived in large numbers – at least 30, and announced that the Greater London Authority (GLA) had issued instructions this weekend to disperse any gatherings of more than 30 people.
As can be seen in this film by Real Media, the police liaison officers assigned to the action seemed to be making up rules as they went along. A spokesperson for the Mayor of London confirmed the police were lying about the new GLA instructions:
‘This is simply not true. Operational policing decisions are a matter for the Metropolitan Police and are taken independently of the Mayor.’
Barrister Adam Wagner in his take on the new rules warns against the chilling effect of the £10,000 mandatory fine for anyone who is found to be “holding” or “involved in the holding” (whatever that means) of a gathering which doesn’t come within the exceptions mentioned above. Many will think twice about organising a protest that would risk the existence of their organisation, financially.
Meanwhile, the official Twitter account of the Prime Minister put out this misleading tweet (using the NHS logo):
As pointed out above, many gatherings of more than 30 people are perfectly legal, if organised by a business, charity, public authority or political body doing a risk assessment and complying with social distancing guidance.
On 4 September, it was reported that Extinction Rebellion protesters in London had been warned they risk a large fine if they fail to comply with these rules, with the Metropolitan Police saying risk assessments “did not meet the required standard”. It is unclear how the police are qualified to make this kind of health assessment.
The current travel quarantine regulations are far stricter than any of the national or local lockdowns. The rules include an extraordinarily limited set of potential reasons you can leave the place where you are living during the quarantine. No exception is available to take exercise, except perhaps to “avoid injury or illness” which would certainly include mental illness. These regulations are from 8 June (no significant amends since): The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) Regulations 2020.
However, perhaps surprisingly given the enthusiastic enforcement of other powers, The Guardian reported that by 8 August just 10 enforcement orders were issued for breach of UK quarantine rules, while the National Police Chiefs Association reported three fines were issued in August to those failing to self-isolate after arriving in England (there might be an overlap in these figures).
In Merseyside, a train passenger has been charged with threatening behaviour and assaulting a police officer after a row broke out because he refused to wear a face mask. British Transport Police has subsequently said they were responding to allegations the man had been coughing at two other passengers, although a widely-circulated viral video seems to show officers enforcing the masking regulations and the passenger claiming he was exempt from them.
The deputy mayor of Greater Manchester has called for a rethink on policing coronavirus restrictions after revealing that less than half of local lockdown fines have been paid.
Trying to follow the changes to the English lockdown regulations? Michael Maggs is updating Wikipedia with near-daily summaries of the actual enforceable Regulations – (so not the guidance). Main page for the Healthcare Regulations (Coronavirus, Restrictions); The various local lockdown regulations; Wearing of face coverings on public transport; Wearing of face coverings in a Relevant Place.