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Public health concern voiced after thousands gather for George Floyd protest

Around 2,000 protesters came together in Belfast city centre on Wednesday to show solidarity following Mr Floyd’s death in the US.

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People participate in a Black Lives Matter protest rally march through Donegall Square in Belfast in memory of George Floyd (/PA)

People participate in a Black Lives Matter protest rally march through Donegall Square in Belfast in memory of George Floyd (/PA)

People participate in a Black Lives Matter protest rally march through Donegall Square in Belfast in memory of George Floyd (/PA)

Public health concerns have been expressed after thousands gathered in Belfast for a rally in support of George Floyd.

Demonstrators took over the main road in front of the landmark City Hall for more than two hours, forcing police to divert traffic.

They chanted, knelt and held aloft hundreds of placards to protest over the death of Mr Floyd in police custody in the US last week.

People were packed tightly together at the centre of the City Hall protest, with others observing social distancing at the fringes of the rally.

The Public Health Agency’s head of health protection Dr Gerry Waldron warned public gatherings increased the risk to the population from coronavirus.

“We’ve got to bear in mind that the virus hasn’t got any conscience and … doesn’t recognise good causes,” he told the BBC.

“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.”

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne said public protests at this time “will endanger lives”.

“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 #BlackLivesMatter, but also stop the spread of #Covid19,” he tweeted.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said she is in sympathy with the cause of the demonstration but said public protests in a pandemic were “reckless and could endanger lives”.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland maintained a low-key presence at the event, with officers observing from a distance.

Chief Inspector Gavin Kirkpatrick said officers had engaged with the organiser before and during the event and maintained a presence throughout.

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People participate in a Black Lives Matter protest rally march through Donegall Square in Belfast on Wednesday (David Young/PA)

People participate in a Black Lives Matter protest rally march through Donegall Square in Belfast on Wednesday (David Young/PA)

PA

People participate in a Black Lives Matter protest rally march through Donegall Square in Belfast on Wednesday (David Young/PA)

“We will continue to engage, explain and encourage people to make the right choices and enforce the law as appropriate,” he said.

Jolene Francis, who helped to organise the Belfast rally, defended the gathering, pointing out that many were wearing masks and using sanitisers.

“I would say that racial injustice and discrimination have been a health crisis since the beginning of time, and while I understand where the people are coming from, the government advice has also advised people to behave at their discretion, and that is also the message we pushed, to come down and act responsibly,” she told the BBC.

“If you look at the pictures, if there are groups of people that were gathered, those are people that came together. Towards the back of the protest there were people spread out. I agree at the epicentre of the protest there was people gathered together, those people were wearing masks, they were using sanitisers, those people were incredibly emotionally charged. These are people who feel racial discrimination and injustice every single day.”

PA