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By Stephen Powis
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Black Lives Matter demonstrations 'undoubtedly a risk' for spreading coronavirus, Matt Hancock says

Matt Hancock has urged protestors not to gather in big groups

4 min read

Black Lives Matter demonstrations are "undoubtedly a risk" for spreading coronavirus, Matt Hancock has said.

The Health Secretary has made a plea to people not to gather in groups of more than six as he warned protesters they risked undermining efforts to halt the spread of the virus.

Tens of thousands of people joined Black Lives Matter demonstrations on Saturday, including in London and Manchester, with further marches planned across the country later today.

But Mr Hancock said while he supported the argument for the protests "very strongly", the gatherings were against the rules because they "increased the risk" of infections.

"It is undoubtely a risk, undoubtedly a risk," told Sky's Sophy Ridge.

"I support very strongly the argument being made by those who are protesting for more equality and against discrimination. But the virus itself doesn’t discriminate and gathering in large groups is temporarily against the rules, precisely because it increases the risk of the spread of this virus."

He added: "So I would urge people to make their argument, and I will support you in making that argument. But please don’t spread the virus, which has already done so much damage, and which we’re starting to get under control."

Meanwhile, Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist on the government's Sage committee said there was "some risk" to those attending the demonstrations.

Speaking to the BBC's Andrew Marr show, he said: "About one in every thousand people will be infectious. It is a risk to have thousands of people congregating."

The top scientist said the fact the demonstrations were outside and that many demonstrators were wearing masks would mitigate the dangers "to some extent".

But Mr Hancock's warning was leapt on by Labour's Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon, who said it was wrong to suggest that the protesters were the only people to have been forced to break social distancing rules during the pandemic.

"I think we need to dispel some idea that the UK has been in a bubble and all of a sudden these groups of people who are demonstrating have come out of that in a way that is not representative of the country at large," he said.

"From my own casework here in Oldham, there are thousands of people here, and there will hundreds of thousands of people around the country who have been going to work where social distancing hasn't been maintained."

And comparing the protests to MPs returning to Westminster this week, Mr McMahon said the gatherings were an important part of the "democratic process".

"MPs were in Parliament lining up, often breaking social distancing because of the pinch points, in terms of upholding our democratic responsbility," he said.

"We all need to understand that peaceful assembly is also a very important part of our democratic process as well. Of course, we don't want anybody to break social distancing, we want to make sure we control the virus, but we also need to put it into perspective as well."

Meanwhile, the Conservative's London Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has also backed the protests, saying dispersing the gatherings on safety grounds would only "store up trouble for the summer".

"If we do not allow this tension to be answered, if it is bottled up, then it will just spill out into the summer and be very tough for the police," he said on Friday.

"So in some sense, they absolutely need to go ahead, but it must be done with social distancing and must be done as safely as possible.

"People must wear masks - and if you have already been on a protest, please think of it as having already had your go and stay away, and let people express themselves so we can move past this point."

He added: "This is a very, very tough situation for us all, but there are a few things we all have to take into account.

"If this very real tension and fear is not allowed a pressure valve to release, we'll be storing up trouble for summer."

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