When the former supreme court judge lord sumption said britain was encouraging a stasi-style surveillance state with a poisonous network of informers, i thought at first that hed lost his cool.

That was until i heard priti patel, the home secretary, tell kay burley on sky news shed happily grass up her own neighbours if they were doing something inappropriate.

Coronavirus or the breakdown of civilised society which in the end is the greater ill?

The rule of six began as a seemingly innocent announcement by the prime minister of the limit to new gatherings. but before long it emerged from his colleagues that mingling persistently across groups of six could earn you a criminal record and a kids birthday party with an extra granny could warrant a call to the police.

There is a revolt, and rightly so. even the prime minister winced when asked about the threshold for calling the police. bullingdon boys dont snitch; and perhaps, when he said the rule was aimed at neighbours having a party as debauched as the one in animal house, the 1978 frat boy comedy, he must have remembered some toga-clad balliol balls that went a little too far.

Nevertheless, patels permission has been given and i fear it will sit too easily in our new culture of complaint. sumptions stasi analogy is not a lived experience for most of us but this reporting has become an accepted part of modern life.

We are regularly invited to censure the behaviour of others. that rating you gave the uber driver based on his taste in music? the one he gave you in return for spilling coffee in his car? airbnb hosts reviewing their own guests the impertinence. and the gripe network grows apace, with local facebook groups and nextdoor putting into digital print what was once just over-the-fence gossip.

It may just have seemed a natural extension of this culture to be invited by the home secretary to deliver a review of your neighbours performance on the six-person metric via a police hotline. indeed, the metropolitan police has even laid on a special user-friendly page to report it.

But we do still know the difference between a stinking review of a restaurant and a call to the police, dont we? the six-person rule is to prevent infractions that would, under any other circumstances, be dealt with through civic channels a stern note under the door or, if significant indignation was caused, a call to the council to dispatch the environmental health officer. (in fact, possibly more effective if the party is being held in an airbnb apartment is to complain to them.)

The case for a criminal record for failing to respect the rule perhaps rests on some shaky memory of the old john stuart mill maxim that it is reasonable to restrain someone from doing as they wish if the aim is to prevent harm to others. (grouse not included.)

One might as well reach for another quote from mill that there is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence. finding that limit, and not encroaching, is necessary for the good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

The harm of calling the rozzers may well be the greater encroachment. if your neighbour does have a toga party, it is fair to say that they arent acting in the spirit required to keep the virus under control. but being told to call the police is a breach of the civility that oils society.

The majority of us stand a metre or more apart not because it is the law but because it is just good form. there lies the good condition of human affairs, and a peaceable populace.

See by contrast germany, weighed down by its history. when it introduced social distancing measures in march, police phone lines were soon ringing off the hook.

Authorities in magdeburg complained about unnecessary calls about groups of three people on a park bench and the interior minister for berlin said: we dont want any snitching. get caught out fair and square, please.

Most strange is that it is a johnson government one presenting itself as a defender of liberty, the right for an englishmans home to be his castle and the right to sing land of hope and glory, mother of the free that made our personal responsibilities a police matter.

If my neighbour invites a whole choir to his flat to sing it, should i call the police? nope. i think i will revolt in the traditional british way just scowling and muttering under my breath.

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