Authorities Seek Powers To Set up ‘Buffer Zones’ To Stop Anti-Vaccine Protests At Schools

By Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.
February 24, 2022Updated: February 24, 2022

On Monday, Home Secretary Priti Patel backed an amendment from the House of Lords to the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill that would enable a local authority to quickly establish a ‘buffer zone’ around schools that have had ‘anti-vaxxers’ protests.

“She will point out to MPs the irony of recognising the significant harm that can be caused by protests with this amendment and highlight that logic follows that it shouldn’t just be schools and vaccination centres that are protected,” wrote Patel in a statement.


Last year, Labour called to introduce an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, to allow ‘fast-track’ Public Spaces Protection Orders in the vicinity of schools to stop  “dangerous misinformation” spreading.

Public spaces protection orders (PSPOs) are used to tackle an issue in a local area that is having a negative effect on people within the community. The orders have been used to disperse protesters outside of abortion clinics, for example.  They are also used for anti-social behaviour such as drinking, begging, and drug-taking.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, covers a wide range of policy areas, would give police new powers to “impose conditions on protests that are noisy enough to cause ‘intimidation or harassment’ or ‘serious unease, alarm, or distress’ to bystanders,” and increase the sentence for damaging memorials to up to 10 years. The bill is currently being debated in the house of Lords and stands a firm chance of becoming law.

However, the Bill has been criticised as a serious clampdown on civil liberties as it would allow the police to impose controls on protests. These new powers were introduced during 2020’s Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protests.

A recent survey from the Association of School and College Leaders Union found that nearly eight in 10 schools have been targeted with anti-vaccine protests. Protesters have been criticised for handing out leaflets to pupils and holding up signs saying COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe.

Last September, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) announced the decision to not back vaccination of all 12- to 15-year-olds. The JCVI said that the margin of benefit is considered too small to support universal vaccination of healthy children of that age group at the time. Children aged five to 11 in England are now being offered a low-dose COVID jab on a “non-urgent” basis.

Already Violations

The Manifesto Club, an organisation that challenges the hyper-regulation of public spaces, said that the amendment is justified in part in the light of recent cases of invasion of vaccination centres.

But it noted that attacks on vaccination centres are already violations of many criminal laws, including theft, criminal damage, and trespass and public order offences. These are serious offences and should be prosecuted under the relevant law, for which the penalties are far more serious than any PSPO.

On the claim that 80 percent of schools have been targeted by anti-vaccination campaigners, research from The Manifesto Club found that this campaigning was mainly in the form of emails or the delivery of letters. In some cases, it involved protests by parents outside the school, who were concerned that their children would be vaccinated without their consent.

“It gives them carte blanche to not consult and that creates problems. For example, if you have a situation somewhere, in many cases where parents are protesting outside of school, you have a headmaster bringing in a legal order against parents, that won’t be good for school relations,” said Manifesto Club director Josie Appleton.

The amendment in practice would mean giving headteachers the power to prohibit any activity outside their school, so long as they gain consent from the head of the council and the police. This could include banning parents from gathering petition signatures or just banning parents from gathering.

“There have been problems with anti-vaxx protests and criminal damage, nobody would support them, but there are plenty of laws to deal with them,” said Appleton.

Appleton added that the PSPOs wouldn’t ban criminal damage, but it could ban things like expressing views on vaccination within the vicinity of the school for example. It would ban something that was not a criminal offence and would enforce an existing one, rather would create a new crime.

“Whenever there is a problem, people want more powers, more laws, more executive open-ended power. And it’s not the answer,” added Appleton.

‘Completely Inappropriate’

Headmaster unions backed the Home Secretary Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders union told The Daily Mail that schools “played a role as venues hosting the School Age Immunisation Service, running vaccination sessions and communicating with pupils and parents.”

He said that protests seen at schools were “completely inappropriate and have a profound impact on both the students and staff caught up in them” and added that the amendment to the Policing Bill “is therefore welcomed as an extra tier of protection.”