The growing powers of police around rights to protest have been back in the news recently, this time in tandem the sensitive and hotly debated issues around NHS workers’ pay.
Karen Reissmann, a 61 year old nurse who has been working on the frontlines throughout the pandemic, has handed a £10,000 fine by the Greater Manchester police (GMP) in March after protesting on behalf of other NHS workers about the government’s 1% pay rise for health care staff.
Ms Reissmann organised the 40 person strong protest on 1 March following the pay increase which many economists predicted could contribute to new nurses being £300 worse off. She specifically requested a limit of protestors in order to guarantee social distancing and keep the protest Covid compliant.
Despite offering a risk assessment of her protest to GMP and ensuring that their actions were safely within Covid-19 guidelines, the nurse was handed the eye-watering fine on the grounds that the protests are not exempt from every day coronavirus restrictions.
Despite being informed by Ms Reissmann’s representatives that their interpretation of the law surrounding gatherings and protests during the pandemic was faulty, GMP have doubled down on their position. Claiming that their own lawyers had reviewed the fine, the police force claim that they were satisfied that their implementation of the law and the issuing of punishments was “proportionate, legal, accountable and necessary in the circumstances”.
Furthermore, GMP have said that they are now awaiting the consideration from the Crown Prosecution Service around actions to take if the penalty notice is not paid.
The controversy is not without even more contentious context. It comes against the background of the recent, highly controversial police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which gives police forces more power to act and decide unilaterally how to handle and criminalise protests.
Ms Reissmann and her representatives have claimed that GMP are using her case as a way to intimidate or deter future protestors. Her lawyers have stated that the force’s ‘blanket policy’ that all protest was unlawful under Covid-19 regulations is “wrong in law and contrary to authority”. They believe that such fines and punishments are symptomatic of a growing concern around an encroachment on civil liberties and the muting of important voices during these dangerous times.