Coronavirus: Tory MPs criticise 'rule of six' decision


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Some Tory MPs have criticised England’s latest coronavirus rules that legally ban gatherings of more than six people.

Ex-minister Steve Baker said the action amounted to “arbitrary powers without scrutiny” and MP Desmond Swayne said it was “outrageous” not to have a Parliamentary debate.

BBC Newsnight understands some MPs want the rules to be reviewed more often.

The health secretary says the new rules in England will not be kept in place “any longer than we have to”.

It comes as coronavirus infections have increased in recent weeks in England, according to estimates from Office for National Statistics.

Figures suggest there were 3,200 new cases a day during the first week of September, compared to 2,000 the week before.

On Thursday, the UK recorded another 2,919 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the fifth consecutive day the figure has been more than 2,000.

Meanwhile, a Covid-19 contact-tracing app will be launched across England and Wales on 24 September, the government has announced.

From Monday, the law change in England will ban more than six people meeting anywhere socially indoors or outdoors – dubbed the “rule of six”.

It will not apply to schools, workplaces or Covid-secure weddings, funerals and organised team sports. The rule will be enforced through a £100 fine if people fail to comply, doubling on each offence up to a maximum of £3,200.

The measures include the introduction of “Covid-secure marshals”, to help ensure social distancing in town and city centres.

Scotland and Wales will also cut the number of people to allowed to meet up to six from Monday, amid concern over a sustained rise in coronavirus cases.

But in Scotland children under the age of 12 will not count towards the total, and in Wales the rule will not apply to children under 11 and up to 30 can still meet outside.

‘Sour mood’

But BBC Newsnight’s political editor Nick Watt said there was a “sour mood” on the Tory benches, adding: “Tory MPs do accept the government does need to introduce some measures to control the virus, but they want to clip the government’s wings and that means demanding a greater role for Parliament.”

He said senior Conservative backbenchers are lobbying Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle – who accused the government this week of bypassing Parliament – to make sure that legislation is being reviewed every month, not every six months.

Conservative MP Steve Baker described the new restrictions as “madness”.

“When you look at the draconian nature of the imposition on the British people, the shifting and uncertain legal environment, the lack of scrutiny and what has changed about this disease, I think its time now to say that this is not a fit legal environment for the British people,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“It’s time to move to a voluntary system, unless the government can demonstrate otherwise and it is time for us to start living like a free people.”

He said the decision to have Covid marshals “will turn every space in Britain in the equivalent of going into airport security where we are badgered”.

“I’m not willing to live like this,” he added.

‘Outrageous’

Another ex-minister Sir Desmond Swayne said it was “outrageous” the laws had “been made without consultation in Parliament” and without any debate.

“We have new rules that will intrude on family life, social life, huge intrusion into individual liberty, we are to be marshalled in the streets by marshals – what on earth does that hold out for us?” He said.

“We call ourselves a democracy, it is absolutely ridiculous.”

Earlier this week in the Commons, Tory MP Graham Brady said: “From Monday the government is imposing the most profound restrictions on people’s personal liberty and family life why has there not been a debate and a vote in the Commons this week?”

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told BBC Newsnight his party was “obviously concerned about civil liberties as well” and when the original piece of coronavirus legislation went through Parliament “we did raise our concerns”.

“But we also are aware we are in the midst of the biggest public health crisis we’ve faced for over 100 years and we understand that decisive and upsetting, difficult action has to be taken,” he said.

He added that decisions “have to be properly scrutinised” and ministers should appear in the Commons to answer questions when the relevant legislation comes to Parliament.

‘Simplifying’

Announcing the detail of the rule change in England on Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “we must act” to avoid another lockdown, amid a rise in virus cases.

In the last week, cases have risen from 12.5 infections per 100,000 people to 19.7 per 100,000 across the UK.

Mr Johnson said the rules had “become quite complicated and confusing” and the government was “simplifying and strengthening” them after feedback from police and the public.

The new “rule of six” means:

  • Social gatherings of more than six people in England will not be allowed in law from Monday 14 September
  • The new rule applies to people in private homes, indoors and outdoors, and places such as pubs, restaurants, cafes and public outdoor spaces
  • It applies to all ages
  • The rule does not apply to schools and workplaces, to people living together or in the same support bubble, or to weddings, funerals and organised team sports
  • The full list of exemptions also includes protests and political activities subject to “strict risk assessments”, jury service and providing emergency assistance
  • People who ignore the police could be fined £100 – doubling with each offence to a maximum of £3,200

The prime minister also said on Wednesday the intention to return fans to stadiums from 1 October will be reviewed and pilot test events in September will be restricted to 1,000 fans.

BBC sports editor Dan Roan said he understands the Premier League has written to the government to urge ministers to allow fans to return to games from next month as planned. A statement is expected later, he said.



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