London police, protesters clash at COVID-19 demonstration

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Riot police face protesters who took part in a 'We Do Not Consent' rally at Trafalgar Square, organised by Stop New Normal, to protest against coronavirus restrictions, in London, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

LONDON – London police clashed with demonstrators on Saturday as they broke up a protest in Trafalgar Square against COVID-19 restrictions amid rising tensions over limits on everyday life as the government tries to stem a sharp rise in infections.

Police and protesters were injured when officers moved in after three hours of speeches in front of thousands of people who packed the iconic square in London waving placards opposing mandatory vaccinations, face mask requirements and limits on civil liberties.

Nine police officers were injured, including two who required hospital treatment for head injuries. Sixteen people were arrested for a variety of offences including breaching coronavirus regulations, assaulting a police officer and violent disorder.

“As the crowds began to swell in Trafalgar Square, it became impossible for people to maintain social distancing and keep each other safe,'' Metropolitan Police Cmdr. Ade Adelekan said. “Likewise, there appeared to be no efforts by organizers to engage with crowds and keep those assembling safe from transmitting the virus."

Police said they intervened because the demonstrators refused to comply with the very social-distancing rules they were there to protest. Officers removed sound equipment, bottles were thrown and police drew their batons in confrontations with protesters. Several people were seen being led away in handcuffs.

The demonstration was held as Parliament prepares to review COVID-19 legislation and the government imposes new restrictions to control the disease. Some lawmakers have criticized the government for implementing the rules without parliamentary approval.

Speakers at the rally denied they were conspiracy theorists, arguing they were standing up for freedom of expression and human rights.

Dan Astin-Gregory, a leadership trainer, acknowledged the deaths and suffering caused by the pandemic, but said the response to COVID-19 has been out of proportion to the threat caused by the disease.