Coronavirus: A party of 6; or not to party?

Coronavirus: A party of 6; or not to party?

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By Ahmed Hossain QC
18 September 2020

If you go down to the woods today……don’t talk to any people dancing to repetitive beats or you might find yourself receiving a fixed penalty notice following the amendments to the Coronavirus Act that came into force on Monday 14th September 2020.

It is now a criminal offence to be part of a social gathering of more than 6 people unless the statutory exemptions apply. In summary, exemptions include gatherings for work, education, organised team sports, healthcare and unique lifetime events such as weddings and funerals (not stag do’s).

There is no doubt that the pandemic required exceptional measures to minimise loss of life, and the high level of compliance with the lockdown in April showed widespread acceptance of that necessity.

The lockdown in April restricted liberty but was seen as proportionate to the risk. The recent reversal towards lockdown again restricts liberty in a substantial way but is it to be accepted as necessary as before?

What is behind the amendment?

The intended target – the reckless young.

The reason – they are largely responsible for the recent increase in infections.

The effect of the amendment– to criminalise ‘mingling’ in a group of more than 6 non-family members.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the restriction coincides with the mass movement of students around the country as Universities start their academic term.

In the 1990s the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act sought to curb the ‘free party scene’ with reference to ‘repetitive beats’ as a defining feature. Demonstrations against this restriction on freedom of association failed to prevent the legislation being enacted.

The latest amendments to the Coronavirus Act specifically cite s.63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 in identifying such prohibited gatherings.

Of course as, an old man I could say, so what – I don’t go to lockdown raves and can’t remember the last time I socialised with more than 3 people, let alone 6.

But the serious impact on the young should not be underestimated. Arriving at University – your social group is now those you have been allocated to live with? You can’t socialise as before with those in your lectures/tutorials during the long breaks? Freshers’ week and the long awaited opportunity to make your own way now managed through remote links and Perspex?

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By Ahmed Hossain QC

Ahmed Hossain QC is consistently instructed to act in cases involving the most serious and complex allegations requiring detailed cross-examination and analysis of scientific, financial and electronic evidence.

Frequently instructed by both the prosecution and defence in allegations involving sexual offending against multiple complainants.

The University administration now have an unenviable task in drafting, explaining and implementing significant restrictions on the liberty of what must be the most sociable section of society, at the most sociable part of their lives.

With the public being encouraged to report breaches, some Universities are wisely issuing guidance to students on dealing with challenges when out in their new ‘permitted social group’.

When interviewed by the Royal Society of Medicine in July 2020, Lord Sumption summarised his view on the principle of lockdowns, saying;

‘Although I am not a believer in the idea that liberty is an absolute value, I do believe that it is a value of very great importance and that a strong case is required to infringe it…. [of which there was in April regarding the NHS capacity]…..There is more to life than avoiding death and if the cost of being alive is to suppress everything that is worth it then my view is that the cost is simply too high.’

Six months into the restrictions, it has been reported that ‘lockdown ravers’ felt it was the only time they felt truly alive during the current pandemic, showing what this freedom is worth to many.

The risk to life may well justify the ‘group of 6’ amendments, but the risk to sociable young adults of criminalisation for ‘mingling’ could well be long term.

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