Lizzie DeardenFri, 26 March 2021, 6:54 pm
A senior police officer has claimed that protests are “still illegal” as demonstrations are planned across the country over the weekend.
“There are a number of protests planned around the country this weekend and everyone needs to understand that these gatherings are still illegal under the regulations, and I would urge people to consider other ways of making their voices heard,” he told a press conference.
“I ask people planning to protest this weekend to think carefully about whether joining a large gathering outside in a pandemic, and after the violence seen last weekend, is safe for them to do.”
Police leaders said 40 officers were injured at a protest against proposed laws in Bristol on Sunday, where a police station and vehicles were vandalised.
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Avon and Somerset Police initially said two officers had suffered broken bones, but retracted the claim days later and said there was “no intention to mislead”.
Mr Hewitt said there was a “small group of people that want to hijack legitimate protest to fight the police and damage property”.
“We will not tolerate violent protest, irrespective of whether it has been permitted or not,” he added.
“That is completely unacceptable behaviour and does nothing at all for the interests of people protesting for their cause.”
Further “kill the bill” protests are planned for Bristol and other cities over a proposed law that would make it easier for police to impose restrictions on demonstrations, and prosecute people for breaking them.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is widely opposed by human rights groups, which called it a “staggering assault on our right to protest”, following a year of Covid restrictions.
Mr Hewitt would not say which new powers had been requested by police but said they supported the right to protest.
“Legislation is a matter for parliament,” he added. “We police the law as the law stands.”
During England’s current lockdown, protests have been neither explicitly banned, nor explicitly permitted, despite exemptions earlier in the pandemic.
Police forces interpreted a ban on gatherings to cover demonstrations, but campaigners have insisted they could not be prohibited under human rights law and disputes broke out over vigils for Sarah Everard.
From Monday, new coronavirus laws will create an exception to gathering restrictions for protests where organisers “take the required precautions” to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps) (England) Regulations 2021 underpin the gradual easing of restrictions announced in the government’s “roadmap”.
Step one will begin on Monday, permitting up to six people meeting outdoors but restricting indoor gatherings of two or more people.
Mr Hewitt urged the public to “follow the rules at each stage”, to avoid restrictions being tightened again because of the spread of infection.
“As the stay at home messaging ends it will become more challenging for our officers to distinguish who is breaching restrictions,” he added.
“Our officers will be more visible at key dates in the road map, to engage with the public and keep explaining the restrictions which remain in place at the time, and we hope the public will continue to support us in our efforts to prevent the further spread of the virus.”
Police leaders are expecting a rise in crime, including violence, as lockdown lifts and pubs and bars reopen.
They will also be managing major events, including the G7 summit in Cornwall and the European Football Championships over the coming months.
“When you put all of that together that is a lot of pressure on policing,” Mr Hewitt said.
“I suspect we will see more protest activity as the regulations are eased and people will get out and make their point. We are prepared and we will deal with it but it is going to be a challenge.”
Figures released by the NPCC on Friday show that almost 100,000 fines have been handed out by police in England and Wales for breaches of coronavirus laws that first came into force last March.
Some 25,416 of those, more than a quarter, were issued in the latest four-week period – down from more than 26,000 the previous month.
The figures show almost 300 of the largest £10,000 fines have been handed to organisers of mass gatherings of more than 30 people, including illegal raves, parties and protests.
There were steep rises in the number of tickets handed out since December, reflecting a move towards quicker enforcement by police.