Demonstrations of more than two people are to be banned during the month-long lockdown in England, after ministers removed an exemption that has allowed protests to take place in recent months.
Priti Patel is understood to have briefed chief constables over enforcement after Boris Johnson’s ditched regional rules in favour of national measures to curb transmission of coronavirus across the country.
Under the new lockdown, which comes into effect across the country on Thursday, people can exercise or visit outdoor public places with people they live with or one other person from another household.
In a statement the Home Office said the draconian rules will apply to protests too, insisting that any gathering “risks spreading the disease”.
Under the previous “rule of six” introduced by the prime minister in the late summer to combat increasing cases of Covid-19, protests were exempt if they were organised in compliance with Covid-secure guidance.
Protests are not explicitly prohibited in the new regulations, published today , but the previous exemption was removed.
In recent days, some European countries, including Italy and Spain, have seen protests in response to fresh restrictions being imposed by governments. On Friday, violent clashes erupted in Barcelona as individuals protested against the mandatory closure of bars, restaurants and other businesses.
A recent anti-lockdown protest was also held in central London and arrests were made after police forces said demonstrators had broke the terms of a risk assessment, and were not maintaining social distancing measures.
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner described the development as “worrying” on Twitter, adding: “Obviously there is a balance to be struck between preventing the virus and basic right – but with the government using unprecedented executive powers to impose restrictions, protest is hugely important.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The right to peaceful protest is one of the cornerstone of our democracy. In these unprecedented circumstances, any gathering risks spreading the disease, leading to more deaths, so it is vital we all play our part in controlling the virus.
“People must follow the rules on meeting with others, which apply to all gatherings and therefore protests too. As they have done throughout the pandemic, the police and local authorities will engage, explain and encourage people to follow the rules before moving on to enforce the law.”
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, added: “We must remain vigilant to ensure that any restrictions on civil liberties are only temporary, and that our rights and freedoms are fully restored once this crisis is over.
"With Priti Patel in the Home Office, it is understandable why people will be worried. While keeping people safe must be the priority, we cannot allow these rules to become the new normal."