The new coronavirus restrictions for England ban people at gatherings from “mingling with any person who is participating in the gathering but is not a member of the same qualifying group as them”. UK home secretary Priti Patel has confirmed that this new crime includes the example of two families stopping to chat to each other on the way to the park. She is wrong because it doesn’t. The mingling law does not criminalise or prevent accidental encounters.
But banning mingling in whichever sense is only part of the increasing confusion affecting UK Covid legislation. Everyone agrees that outdoor activity is far safer than indoor. And yet, under the Rule of Six, gathering outside and inside are equally illegal. But a park, unlike a night club or a pub, can safely host hundreds of socially distanced people. But help is at hand! The government has made an exception for grouse-shooting parties. Not too many children or babies there. But what a relief for Britain’s hard-pressed fox-hunters and grouse shooters!
And there is that mystifying rule that forces pubs to close at 10pm. Did they know that an average pub makes a quarter of its daily income from that last hour after 10pm? If pubs are dangerous then shut them down altogether, but don’t tell me they become dangerous from 10pm every night …
The government that thinks it has banned mingling has only just stopped bribing people to eat in restaurants and telling them to go back to offices, but of course it’s not just the stupidity or the negative impacts on business, it’s the snagging inconsistency of the policy-making.
The government seems to be testing the extraordinary powers that it forced through Parliament without significant debate using its failsafe 80-seat majority. It was an unusual example of a sovereign Parliament voting to abrogate its own sovereignty. Good old Pyrrhic Tory party loyalty!
But it’s essential that the public supports the government in its efforts to lay down protective rules. The public, however long suffering it might be on a scale of snowflake to the wartime spirit, is not some sort of legal experiment. If a new rule is met with contempt or if it is promptly broken by the government’s ministers or their advisers, people will not respect it.
The government obviously wants the public to obey the rules. It wants them to self-isolate at a day’s notice. It wants them not to travel, even to countries where their arrival does not require quarantine (like France). It wants them to lock themselves down without complaint, and particularly wants them to denounce their neighbours if they mingle illegally. But even if all the above may somehow be reasonable, people in return want to know that ministers care about public health, coherence, honesty and the NHS, not privileged contracts, not special interests and not rushing to hide their incompetence. They want the law to be fair and for punishments to be proportionate.
But whether it’s protecting Boris, Gove, Dom or Dido, Jenrick or Francois, or turning a blind eye to a long trail of ministers, MPs, and hangers-on tainted by corruption or criminality, or breaking international law, including the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Withdrawal Agreement, or lying to EU negotiators, the Government’s multiple means of encouraging people to behave themselves have all been knocked away by the inconsistency that comes from incompetence, the cynicism that comes from an inability to care, and a lack of attention that comes from indolence.
The British public, credited by Johnson as having a spirit of freedom, will presumably draw its own conclusions about mingling, babies, pub closing etc and act according to their spirit.