Public health vs human rights: an impossible dichotomy?
Image: Mika Baumeister via Unsplash

Protests are not intended to be socially distanced. The sights we associate with protests are of throngs of crowds in urban spaces: clearly an unsafe environment during a pandemic. While many organisers of protests have encouraged their participants to wear masks and socially distance, protests serve as a visual reminder of our strength when united and thus by their very nature, they must involve mass gatherings, where viruses naturally thrive. 

Negotiating the tension between upholding public health and our human right to protest is impossible. Outlawing mass-gatherings of protestors would set a dangerous precedent for the future, whilst promoting our right to protest at this time would pose dangers for public health. 

It is crucial that the legislation surrounding protests is more nuanced.

However, the middle ground that the government has chosen must be questioned. Under current coronavirus legislation, protests can only take place if the organisers can prove they are a recognized “political body” and that “all reasonable measures” have been taken to limit the spread of the virus, including providing a risk assessment. The latter two of these requirements have the clear motivation of promoting public health, but the necessity to prove you are a ‘political body’ is questionable. What constitutes a political body exactly? 

This condition is not unique to protests; in order to play sport in groups of more than six, you must also prove that you are coordinated by “a national governing body, club, registered instructor/coach, business or charity”. However, it would be wrong to assume that this same requirement being applied to protests is justified. Playing a five-a-side is not a human right, while the right to protest is; hence, it is crucial that the legislation surrounding protests is more nuanced.

Furthermore, multiple groups have alleged that the enforcement of these rules has been inconsistent. In an open letter from the Metropolitan Police, listed are some of the exemptions to mass gatherings, such as a “gathering organised by certain types of body (such as a business or a charity)”, but protests are not mentioned. The website link given by the Met to find further exemptions simply redirects the user to the homepage of legislation.gov.uk, not to the specific coronavirus legislation. Quite simply, at no point is it made explicit that protests are still legal. Indeed the letter seems to be aim to deter protestors, stating…

“The MPS strongly advises people not to attend any large gathering for the protection of yourselves and others (…) please be advised that you may also be at risk of committing a criminal offense.”

– The Metropolitan Police

There is a disparity between the actual legislation and the police’s more stringent representation of the regulations – inconsistencies that have resulted in multiple groups complaining about the enforcement of restrictions.

The London Transgender Collective’s protest planned for the 5th September in Parliament Square had originally received police support, however was cancelled 24 hours prior to the event when the group was informed that participants risked arrest.

Stand Up X, a group that protests against compulsory mask usage and social distancing guidelines, receive full support from the police for their weekly protest in Bournemouth. However, a spokesperson for StandUp X claims that the arrest of Piers Corbyn at a protest on the 30th August occurred “after being assured by his police liaison” that the event was cleared. A member of the group has accused the Metropolitan Police of making arrests based on ideological grounds, claiming “the message [of their protest] is the problem”.

Extinction Rebellion asserts that the Metropolitan Police’s actions have been “grossly excessive” and the “overzealous communications the Met is putting out that appear intentionally vague or designed to deter people from joining the protests, and have included a written threat in advance of [their] protests, citing Coronavirus regulations that did not apply to our action”. 

When approached, the Metropolitan Police would not comment on these specific incidents. 

On the subject of the enforcement of Covid-19 regulations in London, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist has stated “It is clear that there is a renewed need for everyone to do everything they can to minimise the risk of transmission of what is a potentially deadly disease – that means everyone following the rules. Our officers will help people do that and will explain to the public what those regulations are, however, they will also be firm and take appropriate action against those that simply refuse to follow the law.” 

The discretion given to the police also allows prejudices to thrive, both against ideological causes and individuals.

Obviously, this view is understandable when one considers the public health emergency. However, the Metropolitan Police’s response ignores the extra nuance that one must consider when dealing with protests. The right to protest is a human right, hence the police response to them should not be the same as their treatment of other mass gatherings. 

The discretion given to the police also allows prejudices to thrive, both against ideological causes and individuals. In May, the Guardian reported that BAME people were 54% more likely to be fined under coronavirus legislation than white people. Extinction Rebellion has also raised concern over “racist policing including the targeting of a young black bystander (…) the young man who was watching the protests at 16:00 on Tuesday 1 September, was grabbed by his arms which were then yanked behind his back and handcuffed”.

Clearly. the inconsistency with which legislation is enforced makes for an unhealthy long-term policy, the repercussions of which may outlive those of the coronavirus. Concerns of this nature have been raised by Amnesty International, who stated that although the right to protest may be limited in a public health emergency, “the limitations must be proportionate, meet the test of  ‘legal certainty’ – this is, the rules must be clear – and not be enforced in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner.”

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland Programme Director, described the fines given to peaceful protestors at a Belfast Black Lives Matter protest as “deeply worrying” and argued that “the PSNI must respect the rights of those peacefully protesting”

There is an obvious tension between the need to create a safe environment and the need to maintain our human rights. Clearly, mass gatherings are dangerous for public health, however, the inconsistency with which the current policy is enforced poses dangers for the preservation of our human rights and raises questions over whether the motivation of these measures is only the promotion of public health, or something more ideological.