Police forces have been warned not to allow vigils planned by thousands of women in dozens of towns and cities to honour the memory of Sarah Everard this weekend amid frustration about “endemic” levels of violence against women and girls.
The Guardian has learned that the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) told forces across England and Wales on Friday that they could not waive lockdown guidance banning gatherings, after it was discussed with the policing minister, Kit Malthouse. The document says that he is “supportive”.
But one force has decided that it will allow vigils as long as they are socially distanced and people wear masks, the Guardian has learned, reasoning that the outdoor events would pose little risk of spreading infection.
Vigils were planned on Clapham Common, south London, and at least two dozen other towns and cities in the wake of the alleged murder of Everard, whose body was identified on Friday in woodland in Kent, more than a week after she vanished from south London.
Whether or not the events would go ahead was hanging on the balance on Friday evening after a judge refused an application by the organisers, Reclaim These Streets, to make “an interim declaration” that any ban on outdoor gatherings under coronavirus regulations was “subject to the right to protest”.
But Mr Justice Holgate suggested further communication between organisers and the police could be held “to deal with the application of the regulations and [the rights to freedom of expression and assembly] to this particular event”.
In a statement after the ruling, Reclaim These Streets said: “We are pleased that the judge spelled out in a detailed ruling that the law does not prevent the police from permitting and facilitating protest in all circumstances. The judge has made clear that the police must make their own decision about whether the protest can go ahead and that must include a proportionality balancing exercise.
“We call on the police to act within the law now and confirm that they will work with us to ensure that the protest can go ahead within the context of the overwhelming public response to Sarah Everard’s death.”
However, a statement from the Met urged people to “stay at home or find a lawful and safer way to express your views”.
In Scotland, police similarly asked people to stay away from planned vigils in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and to come together online instead.
A serving Metropolitan police officer has been charged with Everard’s kidnap and murder in a development described by the commissioner, Cressida Dick, as having sent “shockwaves and anger through the public and through the Met”.
Dick visited Clapham Common on Friday evening, walking with police officers and speaking to members of the public in the park.
Responding to an outpouring of public anger and fear, the government on Friday reopened its consultation into violence against women and girls to allow the thousands of stories of abuse and violence experienced by women to feed into government policy.
Nimko Ali, a government adviser and violence against women campaigner, said women had experienced the disappearance and death of Everard as a “collective grief”. “It is like our wounds have been reopened, but when a wound opens up that is a good moment to use antibiotics. This is a moment to use our platforms and our privileges and make sure we bring about change.”
Organisers of the vigil in Clapham, near where Everard was last seen, have been locked in a legal battle with the Met police since Thursday, when the force – after initially apparently seeking to work with organisers – said the gathering would be unlawful under current lockdown restrictions.
They told the organisers that they could face tens of thousands of pounds in fixed penalty notices and criminal prosecution, the group said.
At the emergency hearing, Holgate also refused to make a declaration that an alleged policy by the Metropolitan police of “prohibiting all protests, irrespective of the specific circumstances” was unlawful.
The NPCC document is a rare attempt to forge a common approach among the 43 forces across England and Wales. It says “we understand the strength of feeling” but stresses that Covid regulations do not allow large gatherings. It says vigils will have to be conducted “in accordance with the law”. Currently two people are allowed to meet for exercise in England.
A senior officer whose force will permit vigils said: “This is a grey area and this is about reasonableness. The rules are far from clear and are yet to be tested in the courts. We have discretion, we choose which laws we enforce and when. If you think we are going to tell people after the alleged murder of a woman [that] you cannot hold a vigil, you are in cloud cuckoo land. People have to use common sense.”
Scotland’s health secretary, Jeane Freeman, urged women in Scotland not to attend public vigils as the risk from the virus remained too great. Saying she would take private steps to show her solidarity on Saturday night, Freeman said: “I’m saying to all of the women who are feeling angry, afraid, upset, I’m right there with you. But please do not have a vigil. Please take the steps that we ask people to do that show how you feel, but not in a public gathering.”
In a sign of rising tensions, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, added her voice to those calling for vigils to be allowed to go ahead, saying: “Women’s voices must not be silenced.”
Rayner said she would like to see the police work with the organisers to ensure demonstrations could take place safely despite lockdown restrictions. “There’s been an outcry, an outpouring of the long-term issues that many women and many girls face in this country. And that’s the fear of not been able to go out, that fear of being attacked and the domestic violence that has increased,” she told Sky News.
“I hope that we can come to a solution where the protest can go ahead in a Covid-safe way, that we can work with the police to make sure that happens because women’s voice cannot be silenced. This is a moment where people need to stand up and listen.” The women’s parliamentary Labour party, which represents female Labour MPs, also backed the planned vigils.
Campaigners and women across the UK have called for a societal shift and a policy overhaul to tackle violence which sees one women killed at the hands of a man every three days, according to the Femicide Census.
The past 12 months have seen a global and national increase in domestic violence, and an increase in rape reports even as the number of prosecutions collapsed. A survey by UN Women UK this week revealed that almost all young women have experienced sexual harassment in public places.
Andrea Simon, the director of End Violence Against Women, said the problem was now endemic.
“It is well known that men who commit violence against women and girls are known to do so again and again and often against a series of women,” she said. “For this to be a turning point, we need solutions that target the behaviour of perpetrators, not those which focus on the actions of women who are attacked.”
The Women’s Equality party has urged all women to share the texts they send to try to keep themselves safe using the #EnoughIsEnough at 9pm on Friday, which they will present to the government.
Everard’s disappearance as she walked home at about 9.30pm on 3 March, and the subsequent discovery of her body in woodland in Kent, has led many women to share their personal experiences of harassment and abuse.
The Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has campaigned for misogyny to be made a hate crime, said the volume of voices calling for action against violence against women represented “anger at the violence, abuse and harassment that is so much part of the daily lives of women across the country”.
She added: “Making misogyny a hate crime would be a start to changing both the way these crimes are dealt with and the culture of our policing – both actions which are long overdue in a society that wants to ensure everyone is free to live their lives and not under attack simply for being who they are.”
A government spokesperson said: “All of our thoughts are with Sarah’s family and friends at this terrible time, and the government recognises why so many women and girls across the country want to pay their respects. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, which is why we urge people to do this safely and to continue to avoid mass gatherings.”
Jessica Leigh from Reclaim These Streets, who is also a Lambeth councillor, said she hoped the tragic events would prompt a national debate. “We hope that this can be the beginning of a conversation about women’s safety and women’s rights.”