The government risks undermining confidence among the public by introducing new coronavirus rules at the same time as pushing ahead with plans to breach international law, a public health expert has told Sky News.
Dr Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol, compared the introduction of the “rule of six” this week and the government’s intent to possibly override the UK’s Brexit withdrawal deal.
Social gatherings of more than six people are now illegal in England. People face fines of up to £3,200 if they do not abide by the new measure, which aims to curb an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Meanwhile, the government is battling a storm of criticism at Westminster and in European capitals after admitting new Brexit legislation it plans to pass could represent a breach of international law.
Dr Scally, also a member of the independent SAGE group of scientists who work together to provide independent scientific advice on COVID-19, told Sky News that people losing confidence in the government over the pandemic was a “big, big, big risk”.
“If the test and trace doesn’t work, if they see the government trying, for example, to say that people should go back to offices, need to repopulate the high streets and spend their money – but at the same time viral numbers are going up and they’re not dealing with it effectively – that ruins confidence,” he said.
Drawing a comparison between Monday’s introduction of the “rule of six” and the latest Brexit row, Dr Scally added: “I think what the government is proposing in terms of enforcing this legally with COVID marshals and fines and so on, well the other big story you’ve been covering today is about the government seeking to break a law.
“That contradiction is manifest to people and I think the government is in danger of undermining confidence.
“It’s not the individuals – it’s the government that needs to get its act together.”
Dr Scally said the “rule of six” wasn’t “going to put the virus back in the can” but “might keep it under a little bit of control”.
“I don’t think it’s the full answer and I’m kind of surprised the government hasn’t gone for some alternatives like going back to the two-metre rule, which seemed to me to be eminently sensible,” he added.
“Also, it really should do something about sorting out the lamentable NHS test and trace system.”
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband, now the party’s shadow business secretary, also criticised the government’s admission it could break international law with regards to Brexit while introducing new COVID-19 restrictions.
“Think about the day we’re on today, the rule of six,” he told Sky News.
“[Home Secretary] Priti Patel is writing in the newspapers saying it’s very important people observe these rules to the letter and the spirit.
“It is, Priti’s right about that. But how can we, on the one hand, be saying ‘you’ve got to obey the law’, which we all say – rightly – as legislators.
“Then the government comes along and says ‘it’s okay for us to break the law because it’s in a specific and limited way’.
“We can’t be having that.”
Government ministers have insisted its UK Internal Market Bill is “critical” to ensuring the unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, as well as to protect the Good Friday Agreement.
Home Office minister Kit Malthouse told Sky News the legislation is needed as an “insurance policy” in case the UK is left in a position after the Brexit transition period where food exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland “become illegal”.