In Depth

Debate: should UK tighten Covid rules - or abandon them entirely?

Government defends ‘rule of six’ despite coming under fire from health experts

Gatherings of more than six people are illegal in England from today, as the government aims to curb a potential second wave of coronavirus cases.

To some, the new measures are a logical response to the recent rise in cases. Scientists have warned that Covid-19 infections in England are doubling every week, prompting Boris Johnson to say that he has no other choice but to legislate, even though it “breaks my heart”.

To others, the new rules epitomise a threat to normality. “Formerly free, democratic countries have had to endure unprecedented restrictions on daily life,” Fraser Myers claims in Spiked. “Whatever happened to just ‘flattening the curve’?”

Here’s a closer look at the two sides of the argument:

The UK is right to tighten Covid-19 rules

From today no more than six people will be able to meet socially in any surroundings, indoors or outdoors, in “the first significant reverse step in the Westminster Government’s move out of lockdown since restrictions began easing in May”, says the Edinburgh Evening News.

The Guardian says that the new rule is a direct response to reports that the number of Covid-19 cases are rising fast, with the R number – the average number of people one person infects – above 1. “There have been nearly 8,500 positive Covid-19 tests recorded in England in three days,” it reports.

“The pandemic is not over,” says Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who championed the new rules in cabinet.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also backed the change in policy. “You can make the argument of why not five or why not six or seven,” he told LBC this morning. “You have to go with a number backed by the science and they say six and I think we should abide by that rule.”

Johnson downplayed the impact of the restrictions, asking the public to understand that preventative measures would stave off stricter rules.

“I want to be absolutely clear, these measures are not another national lockdown,” he said. “The whole point of them is to avoid a second national lockdown.”

“No-one in government wants to do these things. The trouble is people who think they can take responsibility for their own health and take their own risks are misunderstanding the situation.”

The UK should abandon anti-Covid measures

Nevertheless, the government has faced a backlash, with some experts questioning the reasoning behind the decision.

Speaking to Spectator TV this week, Professor Carl Heneghan of the University of Oxford says the “disturbing” rule could “well be the policy that tips the British public over the edge”.

“At Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, we have spent years trawling through the scientific evidence on the effects of measures such as distancing on respiratory viral spread,” he said. “We are not aware of any study pointing to the number six. If it’s made up, why not five or seven?”

Other commentators suggest we should dispense with restrictions entirely.

Jonathan Sumption, writing in The Times, points to data from elsewhere to back up the claim that the restrictive rules are an overreaction.

“Spain took the most extreme and brutally enforced measures in Europe,” he says. “Sweden had the mildest measures: no lockdown or school closures and only moderate measures of social distancing. Yet Spain now has the worst second spike on the Continent and Sweden none at all.

“Left to themselves, people can manage this virus better than Boris Johnson and Hancock because they can fine-tune their precautions to their own situation and that of the people around them. Taking the decisions out of their hands and imposing one-size-fits-all measures is despotic and ineffective.”

And to others, the new rules are not just a poorly-judged response, but a cynical ploy to paper over cracks in the government’s response to the crisis. Writing in the Daily Mail, Professor John Ashton says the rule of six “represents a severe indictment of the government because our dysfunctional, over-centralised and poorly led state machine has dismally failed to meet the challenge of Covid”.

“Warped political priorities, flawed judgments, institutional complacency, wishful thinking, lack of coherent planning and a culture of secrecy have combined to give Britain the highest Covid death toll in Europe,” he said.

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