Coach party held after ‘unlawful’ Met intervention

·4-min read
Trafalgar Square (PA Wire)
Trafalgar Square (PA Wire)

A coach party from Bournemouth which was held for three hours by the Metropolitan Police under Covid laws may have been unlawfully blocked from entering London, it has emerged.

Dorset activists including several pensioners boarded two coaches bound for London on November 28, 2020, intent on joining the ‘Unite for Freedom’ protest in Trafalgar Square.

But their journey was intercepted by Met Police officers, who had been tasked with stopping demonstrators from reaching the central London rally during the second national lockdown.

Westminster magistrates court heard one of the private-hire coaches was successfully dispatched back to Bournemouth but a second vehicle containing around 50 people was held for three hours outside Hillingdon station as police attempted to issue Covid fines to everyone on board.

However, a judge on Wednesday ruled Scotland Yard misapplied the Covid rules over the November 28 rally, deeming it “unlawful” in advance without considering the rights of freedom of expression and assembly.

Michael Thompson and Michael Cook, both 72 and from Bournemouth, are among ten members of the coach party who have now been charged with an alleged breach of the Covid lockdown rules. However the case against them could be in peril thanks to this week’s ruling.

According to the Met’s evidence, private coaches were hired at a cost of £1,440 to bring anti-lockdown activists to London that day.

Officer Gareth Gilbert said police learned the coaches were on the M3 near Fleet and intercepted them at Hillingdon, before he went on board to talk to the “vocal” passengers over the microphone.

“I explained that it was clear that they had travelled from the south of England and their purpose was a breach of the regulations and that participating in a gathering was also unlawful,” he said.

“I then directed them to go home. I was met with heckling and my voice was drowned out by the crowd.”

The officer said he instructed his colleagues to carry out one-to-one interviews, but some passengers refused to cooperate.

“Some passengers were providing police with their details so that they could be reported, whilst others refused details and some just wanted to return home,” he said.

“This left me in a difficult predicament as some people were complying with my directions. Some were refusing to engage with police, and some just wanted to go home.

“It was difficult to separate the different parties and deal with them individually, and also some changed their minds and were influenced by others.”

Officer Gilbert said after around an hour he decided to issue Covid fines to everyone onboard for “leaving their home”.

“Some of the crowd were elderly, and I instructed that these people could be taken off the coach for their welfare and any medical aid,” he said, in his witness statement.

He said eventually nine people were arrested for not giving their details and one person was accused of assaulting an emergency worker.

“On reflection, the incident took approximately three hours to complete. I was aware that I kept the public at the location for a protracted time and I had to balance this against checking their details and potentially unlawful arrets and how they would travel back to Bournemouth safely in a pandemic.

“At one point, everyone on the coach was going to be arrested (50 people). Therefore nine arrests and everyone else going home safely was best outcome I could achieve.”

The Trafalgar Square protest had been organised by anti-lockdown activists including Piers Corbyn.

On Wednesday, District Judge Timothy Godfrey found Corbyn guilty of holding rallies in breach of Covid rules but he was acquitted over the November 28 event because the police approach to the law had been wrong.

Chief Superintendent Stuart Bell concluded in advance of the event that any gathering would not be “lawful” and told organisers: “Anyone participating in a protest gathering today will be committing an offence.”

The judge said this was an “incorrect” interpretation of the law, prejudging the actions of protestors and blocking Corbyn and others from attempting to lawfully exercise their right to protest.

The finding of the judge also echoes the High Court’s assessment of the Met’s handling of the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common, when senior officers tried to unlawfully block it using Covid laws without considering human rights.

The coach party prosecutions started in the Single Justice Procedure and are next due to be heard in open court on August 19.

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