XR protesters set off on the Sunday bike ride. Photograph: Sarah Birch

With lockdown measures being relaxed, Extinction Rebellion (XR) urged the government to prioritise health and wellbeing during a weekend of socially distanced protests in Hackney.

Last Saturday saw Rebels ‘reclaim the streets’ by creating pop-up bike lanes with chalk in what are normally high pollution areas.

On Sunday, protesters cycled through the borough as part of XR’s No Going Back campaign, with other branches taking part across the UK.

The action was organised in response to the government’s pledge to invest £2 billion in safer cycling over the next five years, which XR says does not go far enough.

Hackney Rebels say a radical alternative is needed to returning to business as usual, chiding the government for “disastrously encouraging people to take to their cars” to help them abide by the latest lockdown guidance.

Cycling campaigner Louise Wass, 56, said: “We can’t go back to the pollution we had before where cars are king. It’s time to share space equitably.

“Enabling our children to walk and cycle in the way we did will make our cities and towns thrive with life.”

Riders stick to social distancing guidelines. Photograph: Sarah Birch

The group says Whitehall’s announcement of £2 billion for temporary bicycle lanes and pavement widening pales in comparison to the £27 billion being spent on road-building programmes.

A spokesperson said XR Hackney supports the council’s efforts to make it easier to walk and cycle in the borough, but is calling on it to put urgent pressure on the government to ramp up spending on the necessary infrastructure.

The group says it has invited the Town Hall to work with it, and other campaign groups, on street safety measures and to draw up an environmentally protective plan for local streets.

Rosalind Readhead, 58, a 2021 London mayoral candidate, said: “Without the proper social distancing measures on our streets, Covid-19 will spread. This could lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths.”

Air pollution is estimated to cause around 40,000 premature deaths in the UK every year, and it was linked in a recent Harvard University study to making people more susceptible to Covid-19.

Human rights lawyer Jocelyn Cockburn said: “The government has willingly presided over illegal EU air quality limits since 2010 and this ongoing failure is costing lives.”

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