British police said they broke up a wedding with almost 400 guests, a gathering that represented a major violation of COVID-19 lockdown rules.
Under current lockdown rules in England, weddings can only take place in “exceptional circumstances” with up to six people present.
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However, officers from London’s Metropolitan Police force found hundreds of people packed into a school in Stamford Hill, north London, on Thursday night. The school’s windows had been covered to stop people from seeing inside.
The force said on Friday that “following enquiries it was established that the group had gathered at the location for a wedding”.
Many guests fled the scene as police arrived, but five were issued with 200-pound ($273) penalties. The organiser of the event could now be fined up to 10,000 pounds ($13,672).
“This was a completely unacceptable breach of the law,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Marcus Barnett.
“People across the country are making sacrifices by cancelling or postponing weddings and other celebrations and there is no excuse for this type of behaviour.”
The wedding took place at the Yesodey Hatorah Girls School, which serves Haredi Jewish families in the area, home to the biggest Orthodox Jewish community in Europe.
“We are absolutely horrified about last night’s event and condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” the school said in a statement. An outside organisation was responsible for letting out its hall and it had no knowledge of the wedding, the school said.
‘A shameful desecration’
The United Kingdom’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis meanwhile said in a post on Twitter that the illegal event was “a shameful desecration of all that we hold dear” and that such behaviour is “abhorred by the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community”.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from London, said many in the Haredi community “do not watch television, do not listen to the radio and do not follow mainstream media, and so rely very much on the message getting through to them through community leaders, elders or indeed rabbis”.
“The last thing the authorities want to do in any way is to stigmatise one community over another,” he said. “The drive really is, according to the government, to try and encourage people to police their own [communities].”
Coronavirus cases soared in the UK at the end of last year after the outbreak of a new, more contagious variant of the virus, which has led to the imposition of lockdowns across the UK.
The number of daily cases has fallen from a high of almost 70,000 on January 8 to just under 40,000 in recent days, but authorities are concerned that too many people are breaking the rules, meaning the virus keeps spreading.
On Thursday, UK interior minister Priti Patel warned those who broke lockdown restrictions faced punishment by police and announced a new 800-pound ($1,094) fine for those who attended house parties.
The government, police and health chiefs have all expressed frustration that laws on social distancing and household mixing were still being flouted.
Vin Diwakar, National Health Service England’s regional medical director for London, on Thursday likened people risking the close-contact spread of the virus to “turning on the lights during the Blitz”.
The UK has recorded almost 95,000 COVID-19 deaths to date, the highest toll in Europe.