NBC News: LONDON, England — Police arrested more than 150 people on Saturday as they tried to break up anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests in the British capital, as the country continues to battle its Covid-19 outbreak.
Hundreds of protesters, most of them not wearing face masks, descended on central London’s shopping district, holding up signs saying “Unmask truth” and chanting “Freedom,” in contravention of strict coronavirus rules banning mass gatherings.
London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement its officers made a number of “early interventions” to prevent people from gathering and to urge people to go home, adding that they intercepted buses transporting protestors into the capital, and those who did not turn back and go home were either arrested or issued with fine notices.
Police officers led several people away in handcuffs after protesters ignored requests to disperse. Several bottles and smoke bombs were thrown as demonstrators scuffled with police.
Metropolitan police said the arrests were made for breaching coronavirus restrictions and assaulting police officers among other offences.
Chief Superintendent Stuart Bell called it “a challenging day” for his officers in a statement.
England is currently in lockdown, which is due to end Wednesday, but most of the country will remain under tough restrictions as the British government tries to bring the virus under control ahead of Christmas.
The U.K. has the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, with 58,128 deaths since the pandemic started, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. It’s behind France and Spain in the number of confirmed cases on the continent at more than 1.6 million.
The country’s economy has taken a hard hit from the pandemic as Britain’s public debt has ballooned to 2.1 trillion pounds.
On Sunday, the British government said it had secured two million extra doses of Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine, in addition to the 5 million doses it secured two weeks ago.
Deliveries to Britain could begin as early as the spring, Reuters reported, if the vaccine meets the standards of the British health regulators.
The new deal came a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson named Nadhim Zahawi, a junior business minister, to be in charge of the deployment of Covid-19 vaccines, in a sign that the government is readying a mass vaccination program.
The U.K. now has access to 357 million doses of vaccines from seven developers for its population of 67 million, according to a government statement, including 100 million doses of the vaccine developed by U.K.’s Oxford University.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.