Northern Ireland news

Arlene Foster appeals for people not to join further anti-racism protests amid fears of spread of coronavirus

Several thousand attended the rally in support of George Floyd in Belfast city centre earlier this week. Picture by Mal McCann

FIRST minister Arlene Foster has appealed for people not to join further anti-racism protests amid fears they could contribute to the spread of coronavirus.

The PSNI and the chief medical officer have also backed calls for people not to attend the protests amid fears they are a risk to public health.

It comes after thousands of people gathered at Belfast City Hall earlier this week for the Black Lives Matter rally against the death of African-American George Floyd in US police custody.

The 46-year-old died after being arrested outside a shop in Minneapolis last week.

Footage of the arrest showed a white police officer kneeling on Mr Floyd's neck while he was pinned to the ground.

His death has led to widespread demonstrations and civil unrest in the US with protests spreading to the UK and the Republic.

The PSNI estimated that up to 2,000 people attended the Belfast rally on Wednesday with many packed tightly together, while others observed social distancing at the fringes of the rally.

But police indicated no action would be taken against the protest organisers, amid the concerns over breaches of social-distancing rules.

However, with a number of demonstrations planned for this weekend, including rallies in Belfast, Newry and Derry, police yesterday warned that action could be taken at any future large gatherings.

In a post on social media, the PSNI said: "Leaving your house to protest at the weekend is putting your health and the health of others at risk.

"As a society we are fighting a global pandemic.

"Mass gatherings will push back the progress we have made. Please follow the @niexecutive #COVID19 regulations. #StaySafeSaveLives."

Mrs Foster also said the law "is clear on mass gatherings" during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Police need to be very clear with people that mass gatherings are against the law," she told the BBC.

The DUP leader said people have "cancelled mass gatherings because it's against the law", and referred to funerals and the cancelled Twelfth of July celebrations.

"It will be a couple of weeks before we see the impact of that mass gathering in Belfast the other day; we will see if it has had an impact on the virus", Mrs Foster said.

She added that members of the public needed to "find different ways to protest" now.

Chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride also said "there is no cause that this virus respects, no matter how laudable, no matter how important".

"It's about balancing rights - right to protest, right to highlight the injustices we've seen on our television screens - but also the responsibility which comes with that," he told the BBC.

"I'd appeal to young people when they are gathering to restrict those numbers to six and no more, to keep to the rules and guidance around social distancing, and think of alternative ways to express their outrage and to protest.

"As a doctor I've cared for many people towards the end of life. I've never seen anyone lose their life in the way that we all saw on our television screens, so I understand the indignation, I understand the outrage.

"Find a way to creatively express that that doesn't put vulnerable people at risk."

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