Police leaders have urged Priti Patel to impose an emergency ban on all protests during the coronavirus pandemic, warning officers were being put at risk by wave of a mass demonstrations.
The head of the body representing rank-and-file police in England and Wales, called on home secretary to implement tougher restrictions after dozens of officers were injured in violent clashes over the weekend.
John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation, said officers and the public were in danger of Covid-19 spreading between crowds.
Mr Apter said: “In normal times, the principle of having the right to peaceful protests is an important one. However, we are not in normal times, we are tackling a deadly virus which is indiscriminate in who it can affect.”
“We can’t ignore the avoidable risk our members and to those attending the protests are being exposed to.
“I urge the home secretary to be unequivocal in her terms that whilst we are under the threat of this virus, any large gathering or protest must be banned.
“We cannot allow our police officers and members of the public to be put at risk of contracting the virus, especially at such a critical time in our response to the pandemic.”
Mr Apter’s comments echoed those of the head of the Metropolitan Police Federation, which represents London officers.
Ken Marsh, the federation’s chairman, told LBC on Sunday: “We’re in the middle of a pandemic still and I’ve said this to you before; my colleagues don’t have any choice about being there.
“It is unlawful what is taking place under the Covid legislation – ban them.”
He called on Ms Patel and mayor of London Sadiq Khan to “get a grip, just sort it out”.
It came after 23 police officers were injured in clashes with far-right protesters who flooded into Westminster on Saturday in response to recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
More than 100 people were arrested and Boris Johnson condemned “racist thuggery” after football hooligans and members of far right groups charged, punched and pelted bottles at officers.
Police also struggled to intervene in skirmishes between anti-racist protesters and the far right as hundreds of people defied a 5pm police curfew imposed on the protests outside Houses of Parliament and in Trafalgar Square.
Bas Javid, a commander at the Met Police, described the scenes as “mindless hooliganism”.
“The scenes officers encountered across central London yesterday were utterly shocking. Once again they were pelted with missiles, or challenged by groups of men intent on violence,” he said.
Nicola Sturgeon condemned violence in Glasgow on Sunday clashes between rival groups with links to football in the city’s George Square.
“That is not acceptable behaviour at any time, but at this time of crisis that the country faces, I think it’s particularly shameful behaviour,” Scotland’s first minister said.
Gatherings of more than six people from different households are in breach existing coronavirus regulations. However, police forces across the UK have been unable to prevent thousands of people attending protests amid a wave of worldwide anti-racism activism sparked by the killing of George Floyd by US police.
An explicit ban on protests would require Ms Patel’s authorisation, but the Home Office said no such requests have been made by police forces.
A spokesperson said: “Ministers have no powers to initiate a ban on marches – it is an operational matter for the police. Local authorities, or in London the Commissioner of the Met or City of London Police, would need to apply to the home secretary for consent to do so. No such applications have yet been received.
“The home secretary has, along with other government ministers, made repeatedly clear in interviews, in Parliament, on social media and directly to the police that these protests are illegal and put public health at risk. Any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate.
“She continues to urge the public in the strongest terms not to attend protests or gatherings. They are illegal and are putting the public at risk.”