London, Sep 26 (PTI) Protesters clashed with police as officers tried to disperse crowds for failing to socially distance during an anti-lockdown rally in London on Saturday.
The Metropolitan Police said 16 people were arrested and nine of its officers were injured during the clashes, which saw protesters hurling bottles and water. Two of the injured police officers have been hospitalised with head injuries.
Thousands of anti-lockdown demonstrators had gathered at Trafalgar Square and later moved to Hyde Park in central London for a so-called “We Do Not Consent” rally to protest against restrictions, including the current “rule of six” which limits numbers allowed to gather as part of curbs to control the spread of coronavirus.
The Metropolitan Police had issued a statement to warn that it would be stepping up patrols in line with the planned demonstrations, even as it reminded the public that such gatherings could be in breach of regulations designed to protect people from coronavirus. It is illegal for people to gather in groups of more than six, unless they are exempt.
While protest is one of those exemptions, organisers must submit a risk assessment and must comply with social distancing.
“As the crowds began to swell in Trafalgar Square, it became impossible for people maintain social distancing and keep each other safe,” said Commander Ade Adelekan, who is leading the Met Police operation on Saturday.
“This lack of action voided the risk assessment submitted by event organisers the night before. Therefore, today’s demonstration was no longer exempt from the coronavirus regulations. In the interest of public safety, officers then worked quickly to disperse crowds,” he said.
Earlier, he had said that his officers will use the approach of engaging, explaining and encouraging people to follow the regulations.
“However, if people fail to comply, and continue to put themselves at risk, officers will take enforcement action,” he said.
“I know there is great frustration to these regulations, but they have been designed to keep everyone safe from what is a lethal virus. By flagrantly gathering in large numbers and ignoring social distancing, you are putting your health and the health of your loved ones at risk,” he added.
A number of highly trained public order officers as well as mounted officers were among the visible police presence throughout central London, in order to respond 'swiftly' to breaches of the coronavirus regulations and scenes of violence, the Met Police said.
Meanwhile, protesters could be seen holding placards reading: “When tyranny becomes law, resistance becomes duty”, “Unmask the Truth” and “No More Lies, No More Masks, No More Lockdown”, while also chanting “take off the mask”.
Last weekend, a similar anti-lockdown protest also turned violent, resulting in 32 arrests.
“I am very frustrated to see that nine officers were injured during clashes with a small minority of protestors. This is especially saddening in light of the injuries sustained by officers last weekend. We will be supporting those officers who were injured and I wish them a very speedy recovery,” added Commander Adekelan.
Saturday's rally comes as London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for tougher curbs for the UK capital, which is now on the government’s Covid-19 watchlist. All its boroughs are now part of 92 areas of concern around the UK, where the death toll from the deadly virus is edging towards 42,000 with infection rates continuing on an upward trajectory.
Large parts of Britain are already under stricter localised lockdowns, with more than a quarter of the population facing curbs as further rules come in force this weekend. PTI AK MRJ MRJ