Health secretary Matt Hancock has said protesters are making a “mistake” by participating in mass anti-racism demonstrations as they are “helping to spread” the coronavirus.
It comes after a weekend of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In some cases, protesters defied the government’s social distancing rules.
Hancock, speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, said: “It is incredibly important that people follow the social distancing rules.
“The demonstrations that we saw over the weekend, where they did not follow the social distancing rules, risk increasing the spread of the virus.
“That is the clear scientific evidence and it is a mistake for people to participate in demonstrations that help to spread this vile disease. Instead we should all be acting to do our bit to reduce that spread.”
Hancock was responding to West Worcestershire Conservative MP Harriett Baldwin, who said: “So many people have made so many difficult sacrifices during this period of lockdown.
“They are furious to see the lack of social distancing in some of the protests that took place over the weekend. They want to know what impact that might have had on the reproduction rate of the virus.”
On Friday, experts warned the coronavirus reproduction “R” number could be higher than 1 in parts of England, meaning the outbreak in those areas is growing.
Over the weekend, thousands of people attended protests in towns and cities across the country.
They went ahead despite the government having urged people to avoid mass gatherings of more than six people, the number currently permitted under the government’s COVID-19 guidelines.
The Black Lives Matter campaign group had urged protesters to practice social distancing and wear masks.
In London on Sunday, demonstrations went ahead peacefully for much of the afternoon.
One placard carried by a protester read: "There is a virus greater than COVID-19 and it's called racism.”
In the evening, there were disturbances in Whitehall. During the weekend, 49 police officers were reported injured in the capital, while 60 people were arrested.
On Monday, home secretary Priti Patel said any large gatherings of people are “currently unlawful” before adding: “We cannot afford to forget we’re still in the grip of an unprecedented national health emergency that has tragically claimed more than 40,000 lives.
“So the severe public health risk forces me to continue to urge the public not to attend future protests.”
Coronavirus: what happened today
Read more about COVID-19
How to get a coronavirus test if you have symptoms
How easing of lockdown rules affects you
In pictures: How UK school classrooms could look in new normal
How public transport could look after lockdown
How our public spaces will change in the future