Frontline police officers enforcing lockdown rules on protesters are in a “no-win situation”, a federation leader has claimed, amid criticism of the handling of the Sarah Everard vigil.
National vice chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales Che Donald said officers are “damned if they do take action and damned if they don’t”.
His comments came after the Metropolitan Police was accused of being heavy handed in its treatment of women who gathered in memory of 33-year-old Miss Everard in Clapham on Saturday.
She went missing while walking home in south London on March 3, and her body was found in Kent the following week.
Mr Donald said: “Policing during lockdown is a no-win situation for frontline police officers trying to protect the public, they are damned if they do take action and damned if they don’t.
“Ultimately, frontline officers have become pawns in a political situation.
“There is a need to reiterate the call for clarity around Covid-19 regulations to avoid further confusion over laws and rules when lockdown measures are lifted.
“The Government’s mixed messages added to the escalation of events on Saturday.”
Chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council Martin Hewitt called for greater clarity over how forces are expected to deal with demonstrations during the pandemic.
Currently, there is no definitive answer as to whether a protest is legal in lockdown.
Police forces are expected to look at each demonstration individually, and weigh up the right to protest versus the risk to public health.
Mr Hewitt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that policing demonstrations and public order is always “incredibly challenging”.
He said: “You are balancing different rights, you are balancing legal regulations, you are balancing health and safety.
“They are very difficult decisions for commanders on the ground to make in any set of circumstances.
“Where we are at the moment, where we are under Covid regulations, we have got the public health threat of the pandemic, those decisions have been made even harder for commanders.”
Mr Hewitt added: “These are complex.
“We want clarity so commanders on the ground can make those decisions in what are always very challenging circumstances.”
Organisers of the vigil Reclaim These Streets had argued that they had the right to hold the event despite a ban on gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But they claimed that senior officers in the Metropolitan Police refused to engage with them constructively on plans to make the event Covid safe, and so cancelled the vigil.
Despite this, crowds gathered on Clapham Common on Saturday, leading to clashes with police that saw women led away in handcuffs.
Additional protests on Sunday near Scotland Yard, Downing Street and in Parliament Square were attended by hundreds of people.
Human rights lawyer Adam Wagner suggested decisions about whether vigils could go ahead were down to Government “priorities”.
He said: “The Government has such power over the lockdown regulations that it can bring in new ones with the swish of a minister’s pen.
“It could clarify the law tomorrow to ensure the right to protest is protected – it’s about priorities.”
The Duchess of Cambridge was seen at Clapham Common on Saturday paying her respects, but Mr Wagner said it is highly unlikely that she broke the law because she attended alone and was not part of a gathering.
It could also be argued that a socially distanced vigil counts as a reasonable excuse for leaving home under lockdown laws, he said.
The barrister, who works for Doughty Street Chambers, highlighted incidents during the pandemic where allowances have been made in law for particular events to go ahead.
In November, coronavirus regulations included exceptions for outdoor commemorations of unlimited sizes for Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, he said, adding that the Government also included an exception for grouse shooting in September.
Mr Wagner said: “You might assume that the Government concluded such events were not a significant risk and important enough to permit.
“And yet they are allowing the police to act as if outdoor socially distanced protests (or vigils) are banned outright.
“It’s about priorities.”