UK prime minister Boris Johnson made an abrupt U-turn on Friday over his stance on England’s footballers “taking the knee” before Euro 2020 matches, stating fans should not heckle players.

Taking the knee has become a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by American footballer Colin Kaepernick, who adopted the position in protest against police brutality and racism. The pose has since provoked a backlash from those sceptical of social justice movements.

Johnson has been criticised by the Football Association and his predecessor Gordon Brown for failing to condemn fans who have booed players taking the knee at the start of games. Marcus Rashford, England footballer and social campaigner, said it was the “right thing to do”.

Earlier in the week, Number 10 had said although Johnson “fully respects the right of those who choose to peacefully protest and make their feelings known”, he did not support players adopting the pose. “On taking the knee, specifically, [he] is more focused on action rather than gestures.”

But on Friday, Downing Street said “the prime minister respects the rights of all people to peacefully protest and make their feelings known about injustices”, adding that Johnson “would like to see everybody get behind the team to cheer them on, not boo”.

Johnson’s position contrasted with Gillian Keegan, education minister, who described the pose as “divisive”. She told the BBC, “whether it’s for statues, whether it’s the Queen’s picture, whether it’s taking the knee, we’ve ended up with these things being things that divide us”.

Sir Keir Starmer, opposition Labour leader, criticised Johnson on Friday for a “failure of leadership” for previously failing to condemn fans who booed players taking the knee and accused him of harming England’s chances in the competition.

“All of us should support them, and all of us in a position to do so should show leadership . . . the prime minister was wrong when he refused to call it out,” he told The Guardian.

“He didn’t have the guts to call it out, he hedged his bets and in doing so he undermined the team on the verge of this competition,” added Starmer.