The Government response to covid-19: freedom of assembly and the right to protest Contents

2Protest during the pandemic

7.The covid-19 pandemic has inevitably posed challenges for the right to protest, as protected by the right to free assembly and association (Article 11 ECHR) and the right to freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR). Restrictions on large groups of people gathering during a pandemic seem entirely reasonable and proportionate. However, faced with some of the most extensive legal constraints on daily life ever seen in this country, mostly contained in legislation rushed through Parliament with limited debate, protecting the right for people to express their views effectively is particularly important at this time.

8.The need to consider how successfully the Government has balanced the right to protest against the need to limit the spread of covid-19 and protect the right to life has been highlighted by a number of high profile public demonstrations over the course of the pandemic. At times these have caused many to question why they have been permitted to go ahead, while at other times the dominant concern has been the way in which protests have been curtailed.

Black Lives Matter

9.On 25 May 2020 George Floyd was tragically killed in Minneapolis, USA by a police officer who was subsequently charged with his murder. A wave of protests, organised largely by the Black Lives Matter movement (‘BLM’), spread across the USA and the rest of the world. In the UK dozens of demonstrations took place in towns and cities including London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. The Home Secretary estimated on 8 June in the House of Commons that BLM protests in the UK had been attended by 137,500 people.2 Probably the most high-profile event of these protests occurred on 7 June, when the statue of Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown in Bristol harbour by protestors. On the same day, the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square was graffitied with the words “was a racist”.3 Smaller protests took place around the country over the following weeks.

‘Defending memorials’

10.In response to the events on 7 June 2020, the following weekend there were protests in Parliament Square by people who claimed to be gathering to protect statues from BLM protesters. BLM protests also continued on the same day. Video footage was circulated showing significant violent confrontations between demonstrators who claimed to be protecting statues and the police at the Parliament Square demonstration.4


11.There have also been numerous protests held against the lockdown laws, by those who believe the restrictions on freedoms imposed by the State have gone too far as well as those who do not believe that covid-19 poses a substantial risk. On 24 October 2020 an anti-lockdown protest in London was broken up by the police because the protesters had failed to comply with the risk assessment the organisers had been required to conduct and because they had failed to comply with social distancing. On 28 November, during the second national lockdown, the Metropolitan Police arrested more than 150 demonstrators marching against the lockdown.

Reclaim These Streets

12.On the evening of 3 March 2021 Sarah Everard went missing after leaving a friend’s home in Clapham, south London. On 10 March her remains were discovered in woodland in Kent. Her disappearance and death triggered a wider public discussion about violence and harassment towards women going about their daily lives.

13.A gathering intended “to channel the collective grief, outrage and sadness in our community” was planned to take place on Clapham Common on Saturday 13 March.5 The organisers contacted the Metropolitan Police in advance to ensure that the event could safely and legally take place. When the police did not approve the event, the organisers went to the High Court to establish that the lockdown law did not ban all gatherings for protest. While the judgment from the High Court has not been published at the time of writing, it is understood that this legal position was ultimately accepted by the Metropolitan Police, so no declaration from the court was necessary. Nevertheless, the police refused to confirm to the organisers that the event could go ahead lawfully, meaning that each of the organisers risked a fine of £10,000 for breaching the restrictions on gatherings. As a result, the event was cancelled.6

14.Despite the event being cancelled, many people still gathered on Clapham Common (and elsewhere) on the evening of 13 March to make their feelings known. On Clapham Common, confrontations broke out between the police and members of the public. Police officers were filmed using force to restrain women and remove them from the event.7

2 HC Deb, 8 June 2020, col 41

4London protests: Demonstrators clash with police”, BBC News, 13 June 2020

5Reclaim the streets”, CrowdJustice, Jessica Leigh

Published: 19 March 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement