“In England from Monday we are introducing the Rule of Six”, the Prime Minister said. “You must not meet socially in groups of more than six. And, if you do, you will be breaking the law.”
This draconian restriction on our civil liberties was not announced to Parliament; Her Majesty’s Opposition have not uttered a word of opposition. There has been no democratic debate about this new law; no nuanced consideration of the fine balance between personal freedom and collective safety. It has been imposed by executive fiat; a statutory instrument; the flick of a ministerial pen, and state coercion nullifies individual responsibility. From today, any gathering of more than six people in England, indoors or out, will be illegal. If seven people meet, they can each be fined £100. Repeat offenders can be fined up to £3,200. The Government has created a force of ‘Covid Marshals’ to ensure compliance. All pubs, restaurants and hotels must now collect customers’ personal data to aid contact tracing: it is no longer voluntary to disclose this. There is a 10.00pm curfew operating in some towns and cities. There is also talk of introducing a ‘hotline’ for your neighbours to call if they happen to see seven people in your back garden (including children).
Weddings and funerals are exempt from the Rule of Six. For a moment it seemed as though all Church services would be prohibited (at least those where the congregation is still above five), but the Archbishop of Canterbury sought clarification from the Government, and he was told that worship is the work of God, not a social gathering. This is a bit of nonsense, of course: worship may be the work of God, but the gathered Church is most definitely a social community. And so are gatherings at synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras, mandirs and temples, who may all welcome their faithful to worship their gods, provided there is no nattering at the back afterwards.
Interestingly, secularist, humanist and atheist meetings may also take place. A gathering of secularist-humanists is not concerned with worship or the work of God, but equality demands that non-faith be treated the same as faith; non-worship is equal to worship. Quite why seven secularist-humanists may meet in a temple of secularity to contemplate the ethical life, but can’t meet in a pub to ponder happiness over a pint, is something of a profane mystery.
We tolerated the March-June national lockdown because it seemed to make sense: with terrorising images pouring in from Italy and Spain of thousands of people on ventilators and hundreds being buried with coffins lined up in churches, it became a matter of national survival. We voluntarily surrendered our liberty for the hope of life, the anticipation of reunion, and the promise of a future freedom.
But now we must return to our bunker mentality, if not quite to our bunkers. We can go back to work and back to school, but not back to normality. We can go to work at the office and mingle with dozens, but can’t go to the pub afterwards and pore over a pint with six others. Friends may not meet without counting heads; families of five may not meet with grandma and grandpa.
The Rule of Six is inviolable.
The daily infection count climbs a little from day to day; the R-number hovers above one. But hospital admissions are low, ICU beds are empty, ventilators abound, and fatalities are statistically insignificant. Yesterday, five people died from Covid-19. Each one is an undoubted tragedy, but more people are dying of flu and drug overdoses, and many thousands more are enduring depression, joblessness, helplessness and hopelessness. But it is the Government’s fear of Covid which is consuming our civil liberties.
How can the Government of the United Kingdom – a Conservative government at that – possibly entertain the erosion of our freedoms without parliamentary scrutiny? Why may our representatives not at least be given the opportunity to debate the point at which daily survival robs us of our happiness? Are five deaths a day worth the Rule of Six? Are three deaths worth it? Is one?
Or should we not reason the need, for fear of contending against “the science” and killing grandma?
How long must we leave grandma in solitary confinement? How long can she put up with waving to her grandchildren from a goldfish bowl, unable to hug, kiss or touch a rosy cheek of youth? Will it all be over by Halloween? Bonfire Night? Christmas? Or will next Easter also be cancelled?
How can the Government of the United Kingdom – a Conservative government at that – not trust us with the freedom to make choices? What happened to the belief in personal responsibility? What happened to individual rights? How has a political policy of perpetual herd regulation usurped the scientific one of necessary herd immunity?
Is ‘herd’ a problem? Too bovine? Shall we just call it ‘community immunity’? Does that sound less beastly? Isn’t that the only source of hope, absent a vaccine? Or are we supposed to go on allowing the Government to ride roughshod over our civil liberties until a vaccine is found? If the Rule of Six may be imposed today, why not the Rule of Four tomorrow, and all without democratic scrutiny or an opportunity to vote?
Is it too much to hope that a bishop might intervene to challenge this Government’s abuse of power and contempt for Parliament? They did it quite a lot during the Brexit debates, didn’t they? Is it too much to pray that a bishop might arise to confront this Government’s rule of fear, and implore ministers to permit us to get on with the family function and friendly business of loving and laughing without having to eject every seventh person, and without the fear of cursed Covid Marshals knocking on your front door crying plague, damnation, and demanding repentance?