27 Jul 2021
As society continues to open up in many areas, some groups may wish to carry out activities in person. During this time, we should remain cautious and must continue to follow all national and local restrictions as well as ensure we plan activities that are inclusive to all members.
As well as continuing to follow essential public health advice (hands, face, space and fresh air), Friends of the Earth local groups and Climate Action Groups should follow official public health legislation about gatherings at all times.
Across each nation – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – laws vary as to what sort of meetings and gatherings can happen. We’ve outlined the latest legislative rules below, but these are continuously being revised so please refer to the relevant governmental websites.
Within different nations, there are areas where further restrictions have been put in place. Make sure to check your local authority’s website for localised restrictions.
There is also a significant amount of ‘guidance’ issued by the government. This does not have the same binding force as legislation, although it may need to be taken into account.
Where national measures, local restrictions and guidance allow for in-person activities:
You should ensure your group activities remain inclusive. Despite the vaccination rollout, some members remain more vulnerable to COVID-19 – such as people with underlying health conditions. Other people might simply not feel ready to meet in person yet. It’s important to keep all members in mind and make every effort to enable them to participate.
You will need to complete a COVID-19 risk assessment for all in-person activity. Please send it to your group’s relevant regional staff member to ensure your group is covered by our insurance.
As of 26 June 2021, the general rules for gatherings in each nation are as follows:
In England, most legal restrictions to control COVID-19 have been lifted, but official guidance states that you should continue to exercise caution, including: limiting the close contact you have with people you do not usually live with, meet outoors where possible, and let fresh air into enclosed spaces. More information on what you can and can't do.
In Northern Ireland, limits on the size of outdoor gatherings have been lifted, but the organiser must carry out out a risk assessment. Outdoor gatherings of 30 people or fewer (or 15 people for indoor gatherings) do not need a risk assessment according to national rules, however Friends of the Earth still requires you to complete one. Specific guidance is in place for indoor gatherings, including around ventilation and washing hands/touch points. More information on the regulations and guidance.
In Wales, there are no longer any restrictions in place when gathering anywhere outdoors, including in private gardens, public parks and beaches, outdoor areas of regulated premises or for outdoor activities and events. However, the organiser of the activity has a legal duty to undertake a covid-specific risk assessment and take reasonable measures to minimise the risk of exposure to and spread of coronavirus. For indoor events, reasonable measures must also include ensuring social distancing can be maintained between individual households or groups of six. More information on the current restrictions.
All three nations have different exceptions which may apply to particular larger gatherings. If you feel the rules are unclear in relation to your activity, get in touch with us for support and further information.
Right to protest under Covid restrictions
The new Covid Regulations for England which came into force on 29 March 2021 identify 3 “steps” towards the easing of restrictions on gatherings and interactions.
In all of the three steps, there is a protest exception to the restrictions for outdoor gatherings. This is a change from the regulations in force before 29 March 2021, which did not have this.
To qualify for this exception:
- The gathering must be organised for the purpose of protest;
- Be organised by a business, charitable, benevolent, or philanthropic institution, a public body or a political body; and
- The gathering organiser must take the required precautions in relation to the gathering.
Friends of the Earth Local Groups and Climate Action Groups qualify as political bodies in that they promote or oppose changes in law and government policy. To qualify for the protests exception, groups must make sure that in advance of the protest:
- the gathering organiser had carried out an appropriate risk assessment (see the above form); and
- had taken all reasonable measures to limit the risk of transmission of coronavirus, taking into account the risk assessment, and any government guidance relevant to the gathering, such as staying 2m apart, wearing face masks, etc.
There is no limit on the number of people who can attend a protest. However, it is important to recognise that the larger the number, the more difficult it may be to satisfy the “required precautions” aspect, for example in relation to limiting the risk of transmission.
In addition, there is no guarantee how the police will respond to a protest, and what tactics they will use in order to get what they may perceive as an illegal gathering (whether or not it is) dispersed. Recent examples have shown very different approaches to policing protest by different individual police officers, and by different police forces, including making arrests, the use of force, as well as issuing fines.
Fixed penalty notices could be issued if a gathering is considered unlawful by the police (up to £6,400 for people involved in gatherings of more than 6 people outside and £10,000 for organisers of gatherings with more than 30 people). Fixed penalty notices can be challenged in court. It is a defence to breach of the regulations for a person to show that they had a "reasonable excuse" for doing so.
Alternatively, the police may arrest anyone they suspect of participating in or organising an illegal gathering. If charged and convicted, the maximum sentence is a fine.
It’s important to remember that the other measures which applied to protests before Covid still need to be followed as well. For example, in the case of marches, the police have to be informed in writing at least 6 days in advance of the protest taking place, of the date and time of the protest, its route, and the names and addresses of the organisers of the protest.
Whilst a notification is not actually required for static protests, an open letter from the Metropolitan police on 1 April 2021 does urge those arranging large gatherings to inform police in advance.
The Covid Regulations in Wales set out four different “Alert levels" with varying levels of restrictions. Alert Level 4 is the most restrictive, and Alert Level 1 is the least restrictive.
Unlike in England, there is no express exemption for protest under the Welsh Covid Regulations. That does not mean however that all protest is prohibited in Wales.
For each Alert Level, the rules identify that it is an offence to gather outdoors in a group larger than a specified size, unless there is a reasonable excuse for this. At each Alert Level, the listed circumstances which can qualify as a reasonable excuse are broadened.
At present, the whole of Wales is at Alert Level 2. As set out above, it is currently unlawful to gather outdoors in groups of more than six people, and from more than six households, without a reasonable excuse.
At this level, examples of reasonable excuses include "outdoor organised activity":
- with no more than 30 people attending (excluding children under 11); and
- where no alcohol is consumed.
A protest comprising no more than 30 people organised by a Friends of the Earth local group or Climate Action Group could qualify for this, on the basis that it is a “political organisation”. In advance of the protest, the organiser would need to have:
- carried out a risk assessment (see above); and
- taken all reasonable requirements to minimise the risk of exposure to Covid19, having regard to guidance on this issued by the Welsh ministers.
However, because protest is not listed as a reasonable excuse explicitly in the regulations, this is likely to influence the police’s approach to policing protest. It may, for example, increase the chance of fixed penalty notices being issued to protestors, or of arrests taking place.
If someone was charged with an offence, then they could seek to rely on the reasonable excuse defence in court. Factors that a court might take into account when considering this, include the urgency of the protest, its duration, location and any safety measures that had been implemented.
A protest comprising more than 30 people organised by a Friends of the Earth local group or Climate Action Group might still qualify for the reasonable excuse defence, but this is less certain.
At Alert Level 1, the restrictions are eased further. It is only an offence in the first place to gather in a group of more than 30 people.
The reasonable excuse provisions are again expanded, so that there is scope for protests of between 30 and 100 people, if they are an “outdoor organised activity” (as defined above). Again, someone charged with breach of the Regulations for attending a protest of more than 100 people might still be able to rely on the reasonable excuse defence, but whether it would succeed is not certain. Each case would be very fact specific.
Whilst in Wales, none of the alert levels have an express exemption for protest (unlike the current regulations in England), the size of the fixed penalties that can be issued by the police for breach of the Regulations are lower than in England. In Wales, the fixed penalty for someone participating in an unlawful gathering is £60 for a first offence, rising to a maximum of £1,920. For an organiser, it is £500 for a first offence, rising to a maximum of £4,000.
For further information and for specific advice on protest law, we recommend that you contact Green and Black Cross, an organisation which provides legal support to protestors.
In Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland there is no exemption or consideration within the existing regulations specifically in relation to protests. The guidance specifically states that people may not “organise, operate or take part in an outdoor gathering which consists of more than 10 people”. As such, it is assumed that the restrictions applicable to outdoor gatherings currently apply to protests.
As Northern Ireland has experienced recent tensions and street violence arising from a number of issues including police enforcement of covid restrictions, Northern Ireland-based groups are urged to carry out peaceful protests in cases of absolute necessity observing current restrictions and keeping police informed.
How to talk about the crisis
We’re living in unprecedented times. While we want to continue as much as possible to campaign on climate, we must be sensitive in how we do that – and how we communicate it.
It’s been noted how in some places measures put in place to limit the spread of the virus have resulted in a reduction in emissions, increased air quality, and in some cases, the ability of nature to return to spaces.
However, it’s incredibly important that we do not celebrate these as so-called "benefits" of the pandemic.
Digital campaigning resources
Coronavirus will change how we campaign. We’re working to provide you with the tools, resources and support you need so that you can continue to hold meetings and plan campaigning work if you feel able to do so.
To start, we’ve gathered a list of some free tools to help you make the shift to campaigning online.
Now is an opportunity to show solidarity with other people and groups in our communities.
We know it’s a scary and challenging time. It’s important than you take precautions to look after yourselves and each other.
For mental health support, reach out to your GP, or contact Samaritans on 116 123.
If you are worried about losing money from venues that you’d previously booked please get in touch to see if we can support you with this.
And if you have any questions or a suggestion on how we can support you, please email [email protected]