Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told Sky News “it is undoubtedly a risk” that the number of coronavirus cases will rise in the UK following the Black Lives Matter protests.
He told the Sophy Ridge on Sunday show: “I support very strongly the argument that is being made by those who are protesting for more equality and against discrimination, but the virus itself doesn’t discriminate.
“Gathering in large groups is temporarily against the rules precisely because it increases the risk of the spread of this virus.
“So I would urge people to make their argument, and I will support you in making that argument, but please don’t spread this virus which has already done so much damage and we are starting to get under control.”
On Saturday, tens of thousands of people across the UK defied government pleas and protested against racism after the death in the US of George Floyd.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said 14 officers were injured during clashes with a minority of protesters in central London, following a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration.
She too has urged protesters to find “another way” of making their voices heard, rather than descending on the streets amid the coronavirus crisis.
Asked if he thought this country was racist, Mr Hancock replied: “I don’t, but I do think that there is injustice that needs to be tackled, and I think that we are one of the most tolerant and open societies in the world, but I think there is always more that can and must be done, especially to empower people to achieve their potential.”
He said “thankfully” the protests are “based in response to events in America, rather than here”, but he urged protesters to make their argument “in a way that’s safe and controls the virus”.
Pressed on why restrictions are being eased when the coronavirus alert level remains at 4 – which it has been since the lockdown was announced, Mr Hancock said the UK was “winning the battle” against the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Sadly there are still people dying but the number of people dying each day is also falling, the number of people admitted to hospital is falling, the number of people in hospital is falling.
“We are winning the battle against this disease and that allows us to release more of the restrictions – including putting in place this local action supported by the test and trace system.
“But we’ve got to be cautious in our approach to it because the last thing anybody wants is for the virus to get going again and us to have to go right back to square one.”
Mr Hancock sought to play down reports of a conflict between the economy and health in easing restrictions.
“The worst thing for the economy would be a second spike and so there isn’t this trade-off that much is made of in the media between the health and the economy.
“I care deeply about getting the economy going, and the best way to get the economy going is to ensure that we get the number of new infections right down.”
Another 204 people died with the virus in the UK, according to the latest Department of Health figures yesterday.
The data came alongside an indication that hospital deaths from COVID-19 in England are down.
Public Health England (PHE) said that 75 more people had died in hospital, the lowest number since 25 May, and the second lowest since 25 March, just after the lockdown began.
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