Exclusive: 'Rule of six' is damaging, Justin Welby tells Boris Johnson

Camilla Tominey
congregation of St Matthew's Catholic Church celebrate Mass in the church car park grounds - Sam Mellish / Alamy Live News
congregation of St Matthew's Catholic Church celebrate Mass in the church car park grounds - Sam Mellish / Alamy Live News

The Archbishop of Canterbury has signalled his deep concern over the Government's "rule of six" restriction and its impact on family life.

Urging ministers to stop controlling people's lives from Westminster, the Most Rev Justin Welby warned that living with coronavirus over the winter months "will only be sustainable – or even endurable – if we challenge our addiction to centralisation and go back to an age-old principle: only do centrally what must be done centrally".

Writing in the Telegraph, the most senior bishop in the Church of England urged the Government to follow the clergy's centuries-old commitment to "localism" rather than "determining the daily details of our lives".

A source close to the Archbishop said he was "deeply concerned about Christmas and the impact of the 'rule of six' (watch Boris Johnson announcing the measure in the video below) on the vulnerable, the needy, the poor and the elderly".

"He is concerned about families being kept apart and the knock-on effect that has, particularly on people who are on their own," the source added. "The heart of the Christian faith is to love thy neighbour, which is increasingly difficult when strict rules are imposed by the centre."

It follows mounting criticism of the ban on social gatherings of seven people or more amid fears the new rules will "cancel Christmas" by preventing larger family gatherings. 

Indicating his preference for a localised approach rather than a blanket national ban, Archbishop Welby said: "We are not immune to the temptation to pull more decisions into the centre, to feel that 'something is being done'. But it is a temptation that should be resisted. Often that 'something' might not be as effective as what could be done locally.

"When it comes to Covid-19, the importance of local networks and communities becomes even greater. Scotland and Wales have shown that local public health is the best qualified to deal with local outbreaks.

"Local government, schools and voluntary agencies – including churches – can communicate well, act swiftly and measure risk and consequences on the ground."

Writing with Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of London, Archbishop Welby added: "What began as a national – and international – crisis has been the top priority of Westminster, Whitehall, Holyrood and Cardiff, and will remain so for some time to come. 

"But in many ways the 'on-the-ground' response has been the most vital. Let's place our trust in the local, and make sure it is resourced, trained, informed and empowered."

Archbishop Welby's intervention came as Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, warned that families would be breaking the "rule of six" if they "mingle" in the street (see video below).

The regulations say it is against the law to "mingle with any person who is participating in the gathering but is not a member of the same qualifying group as them".

Asked whether it was a breach if two families of four stopped to chat to each other on their way to a park, Ms Patel said: "It's mingling – I think it is absolutely mingling."

It prompted the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven to tell the House of Lords: "For the first time since the 1300s, mingling is an offence under English law."

Ms Patel also said she would report gatherings of more than six people, but the Police Federation of England and Wales called for guidance over enforcement of the measures. 

The Police Federation chairman, John Apter, said officers on the front line were "trying to interpret" the rules, which came into effect on Monday (watch the chairman of the National Police Chiefs' Council reacting to the new measures in the video below).

He said: "Maybe we should have guidance, because we haven't had any yet... my colleagues who are on the front line trying to interpret this law, trying to educate and work with the public, are now being accused of asking [people] to snitch on their neighbours."

Tory grandee Lord Dobbs suggested "Covid marshals" announced by Boris Johnson could become "busybodies, score settlers and simply social gunslingers".

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said he was "keeping an open mind" about the possibility of relaxing the rule to exclude children, which would bring England into line with Scotland and Wales.

It came as seven local authorities requested tighter controls that would see social freedoms restricted further.

Councils in the north-east have urged the Government to give them more powers to reduce opening hours for pubs and restaurants and limit the number of people allowed to meet outside their household.

What would you like to see as an alternative to the 'Rule of six'? Let us know in the comments section below.