It wasn't supposed to be like this, was it? Six months after the imposition of lockdown, we were meant to be securely on a gentle path back towards normality, not facing fresh nationwide restrictions. So it is no wonder that the Government’s new 'Rule of Six' has proved to be the straw that has broken an increasingly grumpy camel’s back on the right of politics.
Not only do the Government’s libertarian-minded detractors mock the arbitrary nature of the new restrictions, but they also take an increasingly hardline attitude towards the whole business of Covid. Toby Young, the general secretary of the Free Speech Union, has declared: 'The risk of a ‘second wave’ is a steaming pile of bullshit'. Peter Hitchens, in my book always in the running for Greatest Living Englishman (Contrarian Class), rails against 'this new wild curfew, unenforceable and more or less mad'. The estimable Julia Hartley-Brewer has decreed that the Rule of Six is 'insane' and 'isn’t going to save any lives'.
Meanwhile, of course, some of those on the left continue to argue that whatever restrictions the Government imposes are insufficient, which is odd coming from those who thought the possible shaving of a percentage point or two off the size of the economy in ten years’ time was a clinching argument against Brexit.
Polarisation is the word for all this. Indeed, we’ve reached a moment where the prefix 'hyper' might usefully be brought into play.
I must confess it all leaves me rather cold. As a confirmed lockdown sceptic who also thinks the Government was far too slow to reopen schools and that mandatory mask-wearing in department stores is daft, I am nonetheless quite prepared to tolerate the Rule of Six.
There is no doubt that the last few days of public health data have highlighted genuine causes for concern. Case numbers across the country have been rising rapidly and as Radio Four’s excellent More or Less statistics programme explained the other day, they have risen to an extent that cannot entirely be explained by increased testing. While hospitalisations are still very low, they too have begun to creep up measurably.
It certainly does not yet amount to a 'second wave', or anything like it, but unlike Mr Young I do not feel qualified to completely discount the possibility that it could turn into one. With peak respiratory infection season on the way, it seems to me understandable that the Government’s top public health experts are worried.
So if limiting gatherings to six people is likely to help stop 'super-spreader' incidents, which from an intuitive common sense perspective it is, then fair enough. It’s not going to do much economic harm as it doesn’t apply to workplaces and one would have thought the hospitality sector could live with it too (unlike those silly calls in some quarters for a 10pm martial law-style shutdown of all premises). Big birthday parties may be off the agenda for now, but weddings and funerals are exempt.
And as someone who has been going out, dining out and meeting friends often since lockdown was lifted, this isn’t going to cramp my style very much at all. Call me a soppy centrist on all this if you like, but it seems a reasonably proportionate measure.
Any disquiet I feel about it relates to the instinct that it could just indicate that those in the corridors of power who want to shut everything down at the first whiff of new Covid cordite, without even thinking about economic and other negative impacts, are in the ascendant. Oh, and like most of us I am not immune from finding Matt Hancock’s hectoring tone when talking about any new rules the Government is imposing massively irritating.
But much as it is tempting to take an absolutist position on Covid and declare it over, or a hoax, or not worth fighting at all, or to venomously denounce the Prime Minister as a fraud or a coward, the wiser course is surely to recognise that this horrible experience is testing the patience of everyone.
So, the Rule of Six. Yes, of course it’s arbitrary but so would be any upper limit on the size of gatherings. If it helps stop the rise in infections from going exponential and spikes the guns of those who will push for a second national lockdown on the slightest pretext – and that is the step which really must be resisted – then let’s live with it.