The scenes in Clapham Common have brutally exposed the problem with lockdown rules. People had gathered to mourn Sarah Everard and protest in defence of the right to walk the streets safely. The Metropolitan Police had been asked by the government to stop people going outside for anything other than a handful of allowed reasons: protest is not one of them. Given how many anti-lockdown protesters were arrested at Clapham Common earlier this year, the Met decided it could not be seen to pick and choose causes. Protesters were told it was 'unsafe' for them to be there due to Covid-19. Officers swooped. Chaos ensured.
Footage from the protests showed a row of women being dragged away from the bandstand on the common, which has been filled with flowers for Ms Everard. One sign read: “We aren’t safe in our homes, how can we reclaim the streets?” Members of the crowd could be heard shouting ‘shame on you’ and ‘you are scum’ at the police after the clash while one woman screamed ‘you’re supposed to protect us’. At a time when the state has been handed so much power, it must be used lightly and proportionately. The Met’s actions in Clapham clearly fail that test.
It was "a really invidious position for my officers to find themselves in" said Cressida Dick, the Met Commissioner, afterwards, coming as she dared to pointing out fundamental problem. Police have been asked to enforce a policy that is no longer morally defensible: the criminalisation of peaceful protest. When the virus was surging, it was reasonable to suspend many fundamental rights – including freedom of assembly. The freedom to visit one's neighbours, go to work, enjoy the company of friends and family. But it is harder to make the case for this removal of these basic civil liberties when virus levels are, by some estimates, lower than at any point in the summer.
Hospital admissions have fallen 80 per cent from the second wave’s peak. Deaths are down 85 per cent and cases down 90 per cent. The vaccination campaign continues to be a triumph, with almost everyone in the at-risk groups covered. Britain now has one of the lowest Covid rates in Europe. In London, the decline of Covid has been even more dramatic.
Yet we still have one of the most stringent lockdowns in the developed world. In England, parks are full of people who are breaking the law to go for a walk with family and friends. Millions now live in Covid not-spots where the virus has all but vanished (Clapham Old Town is one of them). With excellent data gathered and published by the government, people can easily find out what the risk is in their area and judge their behaviour accordingly — which means that soon, the police are going to find themselves in an impossible position.
Last weekend, six men in their twenties were fined £200 for meeting up around a campfire in Marlborough. It’s hard to think that the officers involved will have taken any pleasure in this criminalisation of perfectly civil behaviour. Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said last week that the rules are no longer ‘manageable’, adding: ‘Police don’t want to police this. We’ve had enough of this.’
Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh recently told MPs that there was not a single case in the world of a Covid outbreak linked to a crowded beach. Surely it must be possible by now to work out the relative risks of various activities, by studying what people were doing in the days leading to their developing the disease. Perhaps Matt Hancock’s Covid phone app could help. Yet instead we are still bound by the kind of blanket rules which were imposed in panic at the start of the first lockdown.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, has told MPs that outdoor protests pose no big risk. "Outdoors, the risk of transmission is low," he said last June. "We see that from some of the demonstrations that have taken place over the last couple of months. So far, we have not seen an uptick in cases." Those gathered in Clapham were told to disperse because "we're in the middle of a pandemic," but they would have had cause to question whether the medical evidence really is strong enough to justify suspending their basic right of protest.
Johnson may feel tied to his rules, having said that he'd relax lockdown ‘no earlier than’ 21 June. That is three months away, and patience is already starting to snap. The public has shown remarkable adherence to the restrictions through the worst periods of this crisis, but to deny people social contact for months on end is asking too much.
The Prime Minister has a clear option open to him: decriminalise minor breaches of the rules (including peaceful protests). This would give the police to concentrate on the major breaches, such as indoor parties or potentially super-spreading events. It would allow them to use discretion to allow protests. And it would encourage people to use their own judgment as to what is and is not safe.
In a democracy, police cannot ultimately enforce laws for which there is no public consent. To do so risks damaging the public co-operation on which the police depend. Say a mother is recovering from a serious illness in lockdown and her friends club together to help her with childcare: all involved would be breaking the law. Three friends taking a walk together could be stopped by police.
This is clearly nonsensical. And the public know it. They are also aware that lockdown rules have affected people in very different ways. If you live in a large house with a large garden, and you have a professional career, with secure pay and pension, lockdown has not been a great hardship. It is a very different matter if you are poor and live alone in a small flat in a densely packed and highly policed urban area.
Lord Sumption, the former Supreme Court Justice, put it well: some laws, he said, invite breach. But why, then, give Covid rules the status of laws? It demeans the law, and is unfair to the police. Far better to offer government guidance, ask the public to be careful — and use their judgment.
‘Levelling up’ was supposed to be a signature policy of this government. Perhaps it could begin by ceasing to persecute people who, after a long year of economic and social hardship, have with good reason come to the conclusion that it is safe to exercise their right to protest, where appropriate and, in general, resume a small part of their former lives.
This is the leading article in the current edition of The Spectator, updated after the events in Clapham.