England’s uncivil war over the ‘rule of six’

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Is the "rule of six" wrong? Critics say that people should be free to go out and take risks with their own health. But others insist that we cannot put personal freedoms ahead of saving lives.

As of yesterday in England you can go to a wedding or a funeral with 30 people, but not to a house party with seven. You can play football at your local grounds, but not five-a-side in the park with your friends.

Confused? You’re not the only one.

It is now illegal to socialise in groups of more than six. The move follows a rise in the UK’s R number as the pandemic gathers momentum again.

The decision threatens to set family against family and neighbour against neighbour, reviving a deep historical conflict between individual liberty and the safety of the majority.

This rift dates back to the mid-17th century. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that as human beings are naturally cruel and self-interested, society can only be held together by a powerful state that restricts people for the greater good.

On the other side, the formidable John Locke said that human beings are essentially free, and that people only set up governments to protect their rights. Therefore, the state can only act to preserve individual rights, he said, not for the greater good of society.

Locke’s ideas laid the groundwork for the American Revolution in 1775. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, famously declared that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

These arguments were important during the Cold War in the 20th century, when Western countries like the USA and the UK presented themselves as champions of the rights of the individual against state power. In contrast, communist countries prioritised the common good over individual rights.

Critics of the UK’s response to the pandemic have drawn on these ideas. MP Steve Baker describes the rule of six as “draconian” and “authoritarian”. Jonathan Sumption, a former justice of the Supreme Court, insists that individuals must be free to make their own decisions.

But supporters of the rule of six claim that it is impossible for individuals to make a rational judgement of the risks in going out during the pandemic because scientists still do not know enough about the effects of the virus. Its long-term impact on health may be greater than is currently believed.

Jonathan Compton, a top lawyer, insists that restrictions on personal freedom are necessary to slow the spread of the virus and keep the economy working.

So, is the “rule of six” wrong?

Hit for six

Yes, of course, say some. If the government tries to prevent people from making their own choices, they will simply ignore the law. The rule of six will be impossible to enforce: it may be easy for the police to break up parties but much harder for them to stop seven people and a baby from entering a pub.

Not at all, goes the opposing argument. In any life-threatening emergency, such as Covid-19, the state must step in to protect people’s lives. If the government places strict limits on people’s behaviour, then people will take the threat of the virus more seriously, and will be more willing to obey the law.

You Decide

  1. Imagine you live in England (if you don’t already). You are at home and you see that your next door neighbour is having a party with more than six people. Would you call the police?
  2. Who should decide how the country deals with a pandemic: politicians or scientists?

Activities

  1. List five things you have to do every day to keep yourself safe from accidents. Would you still do them if you weren’t told to?
  2. Write a public letter outlining your opinions on the “rule of six”.

Some People Say...

“If we have a doctrine to formulate, it would be one of a balance of justice and of liberty, certainly difficult to realize, but outside which nothing can be done.”

Albert Camus (1913-1960), French novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the public will not obey the law unless they believe that it is reasonable and sensible. The government has been criticised, both by supporters and by opponents of the rule of six, for failing to offer clear reasons for its decisions. People do not understand why they can sit near dozens of others in a restaurant, but cannot see more than six of their friends in a park. Dr Karol Sikora, a leading physician, has warned that an “increasingly sceptical and weary” public will ignore the new restrictions.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over what to do next. Without a vaccine, the only way to slow the spread of the virus is a nationwide test and trace system. But an efficient system is very intrusive, requiring you to tell the government where you have been, what you have done, and whom you have seen – some systems even track your location via your phone. This is likely to kindle new worries over individual freedom.

Word Watch

R number
Short for ‘reproduction number’. It represents the number of people that each person infected with COVID will give it to, on average: so when the R number is below 1, COVID will start to disappear; above 1 and the virus will infect more and more people.
Founding Fathers
The men generally thought to have played the most important role in creating the United States of America, by leading its military forces during the War of Independence or by writing the documents on which it is founded and still guide the country today.
Cold War
A diplomatic conflict between the allies of the USA and the allies of the Soviet Union that began in 1945 and ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
communist
The economic system of the former Soviet Union. It entails collective ownership of all means of production in contrast with capitalism, which holds that industry and businesses are controlled and run for profit by private owners rather than by the government.
Pandemic
When a disease affects a large proportion of the population within a huge geographical area. It derives from the two Greek words pan, meaning “all’, and dēmos, “people”.
Draconian
Very strict and repressive. The name is taken from the ancient Athenian ruler Draco, who supposedly imposed the death penalty for every crime committed in the city.
Supreme Court
The UK’s highest court, whose verdict in any case is final and cannot be appealed. It supervises the government’s decisions and can declare them illegal. Prior to its formation in 2009, a special group of Lords known as the Law Lords carried out its current functions.

Subjects

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