The new three tier ‘Covid alert levels’ unveiled by the PM are supposed to help all of us better understand how and why our freedoms are being restricted, and improve compliance, at a time when both infection levels and suppressive measures are significantly different across England and across the UK.
But it is not clear that our understanding will be massively improved – partly because some of the rules remain complicated and confusing, partly because some of them are not exactly intuitive, and partly because some of them seem unfair.
Let's look at just one aspect of the rules, those relating to pubs and restaurants. And to be clear I am highlighting just one aspect, though many of the concerns raised below – about fairness and comprehensibility – would apply to other measures too.
To begin. In medium risk areas such as London, restaurants and pubs can stay open until 10pm, and no more than six people can sit on a table, indoors or outdoors.
Shorthand: you can go out till 10 with five of your mates.
In high risk areas – such as parts of the north east, north west, and Yorkshire and the Humber – restaurants and pubs can stay open until 10pm, no more than six people and only people from a single household can share a table indoors, but outdoors six people from different households can share a table.
Shorthand: you can only go out until 10pm with those people you see all the time, although if you are hardy you can sit outside, freeze your extremities, and drink with a few of your mates.
Finally in very high risk areas – and the Liverpool City Region is expected to be the pioneer of these – all pubs must close except those pubs that can operate as restaurants with table service.
These pub/restaurants and proper restaurants can stay open until 10pm, can serve alcohol as long as ‘proper’ food is bought and can serve people from a single household or in a bubble on tables no larger than six people. And the same rules apply whether you are inside or freezing cold outside.
Shorthand: if all you can afford or want is a drink and a bag of nuts, you can't go out.
Now at this stage, all sorts of questions are raised.
In no particular order, here are some of them.
1) What is the minimum amount of food that we would be forced to buy in a restaurant in ‘very high risk area’ to be allowed to buy an alcoholic beverage?
2) If you own or operate a pub, does it make commercial sense to convert into a restaurant – given that if you do that you will not be allowed to access the government's enhanced and more generous version of the Job Support Scheme, such that your staff would stay on the books at little expense to you and would get two-thirds of their earnings?
3) Is there any robust data showing that the virus will stay away from those eating and drinking, while choosing to infect only those drinking?
4) Is it remotely fair that poorer people will be deprived of the opportunity to go out for a break, a natter and a drink?
Nobody said suppressing a pandemic would be straightforward. But this latest iteration of Boris Johnson's response does seem a bit, well, Byzantine.