More than 150 people have been arrested as anti-lockdown protesters clashed with police in central London after officers sought to break up the demonstration.
The Metropolitan police said 155 arrests were made for offences including breaching coronavirus regulations, assaulting a police officer and possession of drugs.
In often chaotic scenes, hundreds of demonstrators, including a man dressed as Santa Claus, descended on the city centre on Saturday afternoon, chanting “freedom” and causing traffic disruption.
Officers were attempting to disperse the protesters after the Met argued the demonstration was unlawful under coronavirus bans on gatherings after the removal of the specific protest exemption.
Some legal commentators and rights groups, however, believe protests could still be permitted under the “reasonable excuse” rule in the regulations and described claims protests were banned outright as “alarming”.
The Met said officers made “early interventions” to prevent people gathering and urged protesters to return home.
The force said this included intercepting coaches transporting groups into London, and people who did not turn back were either arrested or issued with fixed penalty notices.
Officers faced jeers from demonstrators and chants of “shame on you” and “choose your side” as they sought to end the protest and enter crowds to make arrests, some forcibly. They were also pelted with missiles on at least one occasion, video footage showed.
Traffic was temporarily blocked on Regent Street as officers tried to handcuff people on the ground in the middle of the road.
At one point, green smoke was released as protesters were surrounded by police at the top of Carnaby Street.
The main crowd of demonstrators appeared to disperse near Piccadilly Circus before reforming elsewhere in the shopping district.
Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street chambers, said that protest was “probably permitted under current lockdown regulations” so long as organisers and attendees were following social distancing guidance, although it was indeed not “currently a permitted exception”, as the Met said.
“Even though protest has been taken out as a specific exemption, it is not explicitly banned,” he tweeted. “The only remaining question is whether a protest is a ‘reasonable excuse’ to be outside of the home and I think since regulation 10 allows gatherings to be organised it would be strange if attending a protest wasn’t an unlisted reasonable excuse.
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