Hancock urges people not to attend mass demonstrations this weekend

The Health Secretary has urged people not to take part in mass demonstrations this weekend following anti-racism protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Matt Hancock said that he was “appalled” by the death of Mr Floyd but stressed that the UK was still facing a health crisis and coronavirus remained a “real threat”.

African American Mr Floyd died after a white police officer held him down by pressing a knee into his neck in Minneapolis on May 25, sparking days of protest in the US.

Mr Hancock told the daily Downing Street briefing on Friday he could understand why people were “deeply upset” but said people in the UK should not attend large gatherings.

He added: “Like so many I am appalled by the death of George Floyd and I understand why people are deeply upset but we are still facing a health crisis and coronavirus remains a real threat.

“The reason that it is vital that people stick to the rules this weekend is to protect themselves and their family from this horrific disease.

“So please, for the safety of your loved ones, do not attend large gatherings including demonstrations of more than six people.”

His comments come after people got down on one knee for an anti-racism protest in London’s Trafalgar Square despite police warning that such mass demonstrations could be viewed as unlawful.

Further protests are set to take place in London at the weekend, while an estimated 4,000 people are expected to attend a demonstration in Bristol, including a march through the city to Castle Park on Sunday, Avon and Somerset police said.

Those who took part in the tribute to Mr Floyd in Trafalgar Square knelt two metres apart in the shadow of Nelson’s Column, wore masks and carried homemade placards which condemned racism and brutality.

Black Lives Matter protests
A woman takes part in the kneeling protest in Trafalgar Square (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

But Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor said earlier that such protests should not take place under current coronavirus restrictions.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The health protection regulations are really clear that it is unlawful.”

His warning came after large crowds marched in London and Birmingham this week to protest about the treatment of Mr Floyd, 46.

Black Lives Matter protests
People observed social distancing during the protest (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Video footage shows Mr Floyd gasping that he cannot breathe during the arrest by four officers. They have since been charged over the death which sparked days of protest in the US and Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations across the world.

Clashes have broken out between police and protesters in the US, with officers recorded firing tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds. Some people looted shops.

In an open letter to the British people on Friday, US ambassador to the UK Robert Wood Johnson said it was through peaceful protest that injustice was most successfully addressed.

He added: “The US Embassy in London is united with the British public in grief over the tragic death of Mr George Floyd, which deserves universal condemnation.

“We offer our deepest condolences to the Floyd family.

“His death is a reminder that as a nation we must do more to fight racism and injustice.”

During the Trafalgar Square demonstration, Dee Ndlovu said: “I kneel because of the names and the voices that have been lost to the wind.

“I kneel for the ones who are not heard and the ones who do not get a hashtag, the ones who do not get pictures or a social media campaign, the ones who have been forgotten in history and time. I kneel because of them.”

Taking a knee is a peaceful gesture to protest against police brutality which was first carried out by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the national anthem at an American Football game in 2016.

Black Lives Matter protests
Two women join the demo in memory of George Floyd who died on May 25 while in police custody in the US city of Minneapolis (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

The protest came after pockets of protesters clashed with police as thousands of people flooded into central London and abandoned social distancing for a BLM demonstration on Wednesday.

After a largely peaceful demonstration in Hyde Park, during which Star Wars actor John Boyega gave an impassioned speech, tensions later escalated outside Downing Street. There were 13 arrests.

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