The Public Health Agency and the PSNI have said all those who gathered at Wednesday’s Black Lives Matter protest at Belfast City Hall had endangered lives.
Over a thousand people turned out at the rally, organised in support of similar rallies over the death of black African-American George Floyd in the USA.
Dr Gerry Waldron from the PHA said protestors had put themselves and other at risk from Covid-19.
“Unfortunately, people that congregate in large groups, even if they’re trying to maintain social distancing, put themselves and others in that group at risk,” he said.
“We are in very, very changed times now and we’ve got to keep remembering that.
“When you see crowds you ask yourself how can it be possible to maintain social distancing when in that kind of situation, even with the best in will in the world?’
“So, that’s why we’re saying complacency is a big danger now as we’re moving out of lockdown, as the restrictions are being eased.”
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne said he was “appalled at actions of the former officers from Minneapolis PD, but public protests at this time will endanger lives.
“We must support Black Lives Matter, but also stop the spread of Covid-19,” he said.
1/2 I outright condemn the murder of George Floyd, as a Police officer I am appalled at actions of the former officers from Minneapolis PD. However public protests at this time will endanger lives, we must support #BlackLivesMatterÂ but also stop the spread of #Covid19 pic.twitter.com/FDKHTYPT5b— Simon Byrne (@ChiefConPSNI) June 4, 2020
Justice Minister Naomi Long was another to question the wisdom of hundreds of people gathering in the centre of Belfast.
“We had a large group of people outside City Hall not at all social distancing and that is contrary to regulations,” she said.
“To be clear, I support the cause they were there in favour of. Under normal circumstances I would have been there raising my voice in opposition to what happened to George Floyd, but in a pandemic I believe people need to find other ways of expressing their very valid concerns that don;t put people at risk.
“The police were there, speaking and engaging with people. People dispersed after a short period. On previous occasions the police have gathered evidence about breaches of the law, filed have been sent the prosecution service after that. I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to the Chief Constable about whether any evidence was gathered.
Protest organiser Jolene Francis said that she regrets she was not able to enforce social distancing more, she remained proud of the efforts that were made.
“To be honest I was expecting to wake up to media reaction like this, we’re never going to be able to please everybody,” she said.
“We’re not a business, we don’t have funding but we bought masks, we bought sanitiser and we handed them out. We encouraged people to social distance.
“While I understand where people are coming from, the government advice told people to behave at their discretion. That’s the message we pushed. Come down, act responsibly.
“I agree that the epicentre of the protest that there were people gathered together. They were wearing masks, using sanitisers. They were incredibly emotionally charged. I’m not a political party, not an organisation. I’m just one person who tried to rally some people together to voice our opinion and stand up.”
She said the numbers turning up has caught organisers unawares.
“We didn’t realise how big the turnout would be,” she said.
“We didn’t go knocking on doors asking people to turn up. There were two days of preparation.
”I do regret not being able to enforce social distancing as heavily as it should have been but I’m still very proud of the people who were there and made their voices heard.”