With the number of new coronavirus cases sharply on the rise again, the government rushed out new rules earlier this week in an attempt to halt its spread. The ‘Rule of Six’ bans groups of more than six people assembling together. But how is it to be enforced? Ministers are encouraging us all to report neighbours we see infringing the new regulations to the police because, they say, we all have a personal responsibility to do our bit to fight the pandemic. But there has been an outcry against this attempt to turn us all into Covid vigilantes on the grounds that it would turn us into a nation of snitchers, undermining the social cohesion, the spirit of ‘we’re all in this together – all of which are so important in a healthy society. So should we snitch or should e look the other way?
The new rules were hurriedly put together over the weekend and the final details were agreed only half an hour or so before they came into effect. The main rule is that gathering in a group of more than six people is banned, whether indoors or out of doors, in private homes and gardens or public spaces. In England (but not in Wales and Scotland) the six include children under the age of twelve. Some specific settings, including schools and offices, are exempt. People who break the rule can be fined anything from £100 to £3200 (for repeat offenders).
Such was the rush that the list of who could and who could not meet in groups of six or more was cobbled together very late. There was a strong sense of the rules being invented on the hoof, an impression not helped when it emerged that friends casually bumping into each other on a street would breach the rules but grouse shooters could still get together in groups of far more than six to enjoy their sport on the moors. If the poor grouse had been hoping for a backdoor reprieve by means of Covid, they were in for a fatal shock.
The most obvious problem is how such a far-reaching law affecting the behaviour of almost all of us most of the time could be enforced. When he first announced the new regime the Prime Minister airily spoke of Covid ‘marshals’ policing the streets. But the details hadn’t been worked out. A government spokesman said later the setting up of a system of marshals would be best done by local authorities. But they, in turn, said ‘No one told us, guv!’ They had three objections. They had not been consulted before the announcement. They had no resources to provide marshals after having had their budgets slashed to ribbons over the last ten years. And the government wasn’t offering them any more money.
So it can safely be assumed that we will not be seeing any Covid marshals on our streets any time soon.
Instead it seems the government is hoping the public will do the marshalling itself. Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, said on Monday: ‘We are in discussions about what reporting mechanisms there might be, but there is obviously the non-emergency number that people can ring and report issues they wish to. … It is open to neighbours to do exactly that through the non-emergency number and if they are concerned and they do see that kind of thing, then absolutely they should think about it.’
The following day his boss, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, went further. In answer to a question about what was and wasn’t an infringement and whether, in particular, two families of four bumping in to each other and stopping for a chat would constitute a break of the rules, she said it would indeed be a case of forbidden ‘mingling’. And asked whether she herself would report her neighbours to the police she said: ‘I’m rarely at home but if I saw something that I thought was inappropriate then, quite frankly, I would call the police. It’s not dobbing in neighbours, it’s all about taking personal responsibility.’ Clearly Ms Patel thinks neighbours chatting in groups of eight would be ‘inappropriate’ so presumably she’d be straight on to the Bill. And she hopes we’ll all do the same.
Whether the police would welcome such reporting is another matter. If we all became the sort of public-spirited citizens Ms Patel wishes us to be, the police force, for which she has responsibility, would be quite simply overwhelmed. According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council, in the first month of lockdown the public made 194,000 calls to the police reporting breaches of the rules (like people taking more than the one half-hour walk a day, then allowed). Most of these reports, understandably, were never followed up. The police have got other things to be doing.
Undoubtedly many members of the public will be fully behind the government in its new policy and not just because some of them will enjoy grassing on neighbours they never had much time for in the first place. There is a widespread feeling that many people, especially among the young, have simply not behaved responsibly over the summer, gathering in huge groups when they were told not to, utterly indifferent to the risks they were running to themselves and, much more importantly, the dangers they were putting the rest of us in by doing so. I heard one member of the public say in a ‘vox pop’ on radio this week, that he likened such people breaking the rules to terrorists. ‘If you saw a terrorist running a rampage down the street, you’d call the cops, wouldn’t you? Why’s it any different with large groups of kids? One’s spraying bullets around the place, the other the virus – both are deadly.’
But others think that comparison is just barking and so is the new rule. They point out that the chances of two families actually spreading the virus by bumping into each other in the street and having a natter (the Home Secretary’s ‘inappropriate mingling’) are just about zero. So in their eyes the rule itself is a ludicrous blunderbuss. But it’s the snitching they most object to.
To them it’s reminiscent of everything that was worst about the communist regimes in eastern Europe, where everyone spied on everyone else and the sense of social cohesion was virtually nil. It just sets up neighbour against neighbour and makes everyone suspicious of everyone else, they say. Curtain-twitching, grassing, ratting, snitching – call it what you like – is the mark of a society that isn’t working not one that is. The thing that most matters in any society is trust and once that’s undermined it’s hard for it to grow again. Given also the fact that reporting neighbours to the police on any scale that mattered would be wholly ineffective because the police wouldn’t be able to respond, it seems, according to its critics, that the government’s approach is no less than absurd.
Of course it’s possible the government fully recognises all this. It knows that families are still going to bump into each other for a chat (perhaps even share a joke about grouse-shooting). They know the police couldn’t cope if we all did as the Home Secretary asks us to. And they know that undermining trust in communities is a bad idea. In other words, they’re not really bothered about the letter of the new law, still less about its enforcement. They just want to find a new, dramatic way of delivering an urgent message: that we’ve all had our fun over the summer now we’ve all got to start being much more careful again.
Maybe this is too charitable a way of interpreting the government’s recent actions and words. Maybe they really do mean what they say. In which case the question is simple: should we snitch or not?
Let us know what you think … and whether you would yourself would snitch or look the other way.