Remember 2016 when all the celebrities died, Trump and Brexit happened and Cincinnati Zoo shot Harambe? 2020’s just like ‘hold my beer’…
From today it is illegal to meet in groups of more than six people. Just when you thought that the pandemic was behind us, we’re suddenly looking down the barrel of Christmas spent with your annoying housemates and poker night cancelled.
I live under a rock, when did all this happen?
Last Wednesday, in a TV special. You know how apparently they’re planning a brand new episode of West Wing just in time for the US election in November? How they’re bringing back all the old characters for a one-off special. Well imagine a much crapper version of that as last week they regathered the original cast of The Coronavirus Update, Boris, Whitty and Vallance, for a 55 minute ‘special’. Let’s just hope it really was a one-off…
Boris and the boffins are back, and their message is simple: things are getting worse and you’re going to have to see less of your friends and family to help prevent another lockdown. There’s even a new name ‘safe six’ (presumably a nod to ‘safe sex’) and another Cummings inspired tagline ‘Hands, Face, Space’.
Okay, hit me: how bad is it?
Don’t panic, not just yet. Things are getting worse, but they’re not nearly as bad as they were when the government lost control of the virus the first time round.
But around 3,000 people a day are now testing positive for Coronavirus, up from just 400 back in July. The good news is that among old people there hasn’t been a huge increase in coronavirus infections, (yet) which is encouraging given these are the people most vulnerable to the disease. It’s a trend replicated among the very young too, but in all other groups the rate is going up, and fast.
The good news is that among old people there hasn't been an increase in coronavirus infections...
If it weren’t for those pesky kids…
Schools and universities are back now, and throughout summer there were warnings that we might have to swap the pub for the primary school (not as a drinking venue, that would be bad, but as in closing pubs to keep schools open), but the rise we’re seeing right now appears to pre-date the start of term with figures suggesting that under 30s are responsible for the majority of new virus cases.
We’ve gone from an average of 12.5 cases per 100,000 last week to 19.7 per 100,000 this week (20 is the threshold where we consider quarantining arrivals from foreign countries) but among 19-21 year olds it’s 54.5 and 48 for 17 and 18 year olds. All of which puts the R number (remember him?) above one for the first time.
Okay, whatever, so what are the new rules?
Can you remember what the rules actually were until today? No! It was a complicated mess. Ask a room of people and they’ll all say something different. Boris himself asked his backbench MPs in a packed 1922 Committee meeting a week or so ago and they were hazy in their replies, and they made the rules! What hope was there for the rest of us? So now they’ve made it simple.
So, any gathering of more than six people, indoors or outdoors, will be illegal from today. Unless it meets one of the exceptions police will be able to intervene and disperse and issue fines of £100, doubling and doubling up to £3,200 for repeat offenders.
Riiiight… And what are the exceptions?
If you’re planning a dinner party, house party, any party, then pretty limited. You can continue to go to restaurants, pubs, places of worship, work, schools or universities as before, provided you’re not in a group of more than six. But otherwise, this simplification is just that, simple. You can’t gather in more than a six.
Obviously if you’re a family of eight, then you don’t have to kiss goodbye to two of your children – the rules allow for larger households to continue to remain together – but you can’t go and see granny, even if you remain in the garden.
Interestingly one way the new simpler rule is looser than before is that these gatherings of six or fewer no longer need to be from two households, but can now be from up to six different households.
Are the rules the same across the UK?
That would be waaaaay too simple. No. The big difference is around children. Scotland and Wales have exempted under 13s and under 12s respectively (even they couldn’t be seen to be copying each other).
This means that families can continue to interact with each other, grandparents can legally see their loved ones and, presumably, the changes aren’t nearly as unpopular (or, one assumes, effective) as over the borders.
The government can now rely on your lace-curtain twitching neighbour counting your mates in and out of your front door...
How will all this all be enforced?
Snoopers and nosy neighbours…
Until now the rules have been so nebulous that they’ve been impossible to police. But now they’re easily understood, which means that the government can now rely on your lace-curtain twitching neighbour counting your mates in and out of your front door…
The government will also be hiring ‘marshals’ who will be required to monitor and ensure rules are being followed and will be tasked with patrolling parks, shopping centres, train stations looking for gatherings…
Here’s what matters most to us, what will change at restaurants? Tables of more than six won’t be possible, though they weren’t already, but one big change is that the voluntary collection of names and addresses will become mandatory. It’s unclear what’s to stop you continuing to put down ‘Mr Bean’, but it seems to put more pressure on the industry to keep records. A helping hand, though, will come in the form of the new track-and-trace app, being launched on Thursday 24th September, which will include the ability to record restaurant bookings, letting establishments off the hook.
It’s also notable that in Bolton, where extra covid restrictions have been imposed this week, restaurants and pubs have been limited to takeaway only, putting them back to how things were during full lockdown. But with state support and furlough winding up, the London hospitality industry might be eyeing up what’s happening in the north nervously.
But this will all be over by Christmas, like Boris promised, right?
Back in summer, Boris told Britain that things should be back to normal by Christmas. But it’s looking less and less likely. When asked by journalists at Wednesday’s briefing if the new rules (which effectively will ban family Christmases) will still be in place in December, the Prime Minister said it was “just too early to say”.
Is all this likely to work?
We’ve always been told that autumn would be tricky and we should expect a second wave. It’s unclear if these restrictions are enough to stave it off, but given that respiratory viruses spread particularly well in winter as people gather indoors, it seems unlikely that this will be the silver bullet.
But if we want a normal Christmas it looks like we all have a part to play…