England’s uncivil war over the ‘rule of six’
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 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 decision threatens to set families and friends against one another as it revives a deep historical conflict between individual liberty and the safety of the majority.
This rift dates back to the 17th century. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that as people are naturally cruel and interested only in themselves, society can only be held together by a powerful state that restricts people for the greater good.
On the other side, John Locke said that human beings are essentially free, and that people only set up governments in order to protect their rights.
These arguments were important during the Cold War, when Western countries presented themselves as champions of individual rights. In contrast, communist countries prioritised the common good.
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”.
But supporters of the rule of six claim that it is impossible for individuals to make a rational judgement of risks because scientists still do not know enough about the effects of the virus.
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. Moreover, the rule of six will be impossible to enforce.
Not at all, goes the opposing argument. In any life-threatening emergency, the state must step in to protect people’s lives. Strict limits will encourage people to take the threat of the virus and the laws more seriously.
- 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?
- 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?
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 by both supporters and 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 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 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.
- Thomas Hobbes
- An English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.