Hong Kong police have cited the coronavirus as grounds for barring three groups from organising a march on July 1 to call for resistance against “political suppression, and the release of all political prisoners”. The three activist groups – the League of Social Democrats, Tin Shui Wai Connection and Save Lantau Alliance – applied to the force on Friday for approval to hold the march, which would have coincided with the 24th anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China in 1997. July 1 will also mark 100 years since the founding of the Communist Party, and come one day after the first anniversary of the Beijing-imposed national security law taking effect in Hong Kong. The groups’ application was an attempt to resurrect the annual march after its usual organiser, the Civil Human Rights Front, revealed it would not be hosting the July 1 event for the first time since 2003 following the jailing of its convenor and a police investigation into the legality of its very existence. Is Hong Kong’s national security law being weaponised? Police issued objection letters to the three groups on Monday at noon banning the rally, citing concerns over the spread of Covid-19 as social-distancing rules were still in force. On Saturday, newly appointed police chief Raymond Siu Chak-yee had said officers would assess the risk of any gathering based on national security concerns, the civil rights of the applicants, and public safety and order. In the objection letter, police said public processions remained a “high-risk activity” that “posed a great threat to the health and lives of the general public, endangering public safety and affecting the rights of others”. Eddie Tse Sai-kit, of Save Lantau Alliance – formed in 2014 to oppose the government’s plans for a mass land-reclamation project – told the Post the organisers had promised to ensure people marched in groups of no more than four spaced at least 1.5 metres apart, in compliance with social-distancing rules. But in rejecting the proposal, the force said it had “reasons to believe” the measures would not “safeguard public order, safety, and others’ rights and freedom”. Tse, however, pledged to appeal the decision, saying: “The government has already relaxed the number of people allowed to gather indoors. Why not outdoors?” He also pointed to the recent promotion of former secretary for security John Lee Ka-chiu to Hong Kong’s No 2 position, and ex-police commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung’s selection to take his place. Beijing shows preference for law-and-order men to run Hong Kong, analysts say Describing both as law-and-order hardliners, Tse said: “Why is the government so scared of letting people voice their concerns on the streets?” Every year, the July 1 march has coincided with the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, and from 2003 to 2018, the annual rallies were largely peaceful. However, the July 1 march in 2019 – which coincided with the early days of what would become a months-long anti-government protest movement – saw opponents of a now-withdrawn extradition bill storm the Legislative Council complex, damaging the building and vandalising the chamber where sessions are held. Last year, Hong Kong marked its handover anniversary under the new reality of the national security law, which was imposed the night before, prompting thousands of residents to take to the streets. Police ultimately deployed a water cannon, fired pepper balls and used pepper spray to disperse the protesters. About 370 people were arrested, including 10 for allegedly violating the security law. Explainer | National security: what is Article 23 and why is it back in the spotlight? This year, meanwhile, will be the first time that many of Hong Kong’s top officials and politicians will be out of the city for the anniversary. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor , new security chief Tang and several heads of the city’s disciplined services were among a delegation that travelled on Monday to Beijing, where they will celebrate the Communist Party’s centenary. Lee has remained in Hong Kong to serve as acting chief executive for the commemoration of the handover, while Siu also stayed behind to oversee the force’s mobilisation for the event. Official events in Hong Kong will include a flag-raising ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square, followed by a reception at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, where Lee is expected to speak. The Hong Kong Celebrations Association, a pro-Beijing group, will also organise a series of events including a fishing boat parade, a marathon, a screening of a mainland China-produced movie about the Communist Party and a nighttime light show that will run from Thursday to Sunday in Admiralty’s Tamar Park. The similarly Beijing-friendly Kowloon Federation of Associations will organise a variety show in Tsim Sha Tsui for its members. Hong Kong’s new No 2 official to take up reins as Lam heads to Beijing The last time protests broke out in the city was on June 4, when Hongkongers gathered across town to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in defiance of an ironclad police ban on an annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park. Police also cited the epidemic in denying permission for that gathering, as did the Leisure and Cultural Services Department when it declined to process the organiser’s request to hold the event in the park. When June 4 arrived, officers established a cordon around part of the park, set up roadblocks on major thoroughfares to check vehicles and mobilised a water cannon truck to deal with any unauthorised assemblies. Several people were arrested over the course of the evening.