Covid-19. Stay Alert!

The language has changed this week from Stay Home, to Stay Alert, aligned to a new scale (out of 5) of Coronavirus risk.

5 being an NHS that is overrun, and 1 being no presence of the virus in the UK. I think (its been hard to follow if I’m honest!) we are currently at a 4, headed for a 3, based on an R (the rate of infection spread in England being <1 at the moment). The phrase yesterday was “move in steps” to Level 3.

That said – all of the below commentary is about England only, because the other nations in the UK are not following the new advice, perhaps through a lack of faith in it masked as it being a ‘different situation’ in their countries.

But – clearly there are varied situations within England as well – Cumbria and Camden are very different places. The government seems to me to have reserved the right to have (in future, not yet) special measures for some areas if there are new peaks down the line. Perhaps that is a local rating out of 5 on the scale, and if say Matlock peaks, they will lock just that area down again. No tourists, and make non essential businesses shut back down etc?

What doesn’t make sense to me, is that if they intend to do that – why not start with high risk areas in those special measures today, before they loosen the lockdown? Cumbria for example has one of the highest rates of infection (I’d need to check the metric, but I think it has some element of per capita in the calculation…), and yet from Wednesday is open to access for all. More on that, and what the local residents seem to think about it further down…

I don’t believe the law has changed, but the guidance on what is acceptable by government has also changed aligned to a reduction (at a national level) in R. That new guidance intends to inform public sentiment about what is “ok” and what is not, and I assume will guide the police, and local authorities on what “a reasonable excuse” to be outside your home is, pinning it back to the law, and the fines / punishments they can give out, and the access to car parks in rural areas etc.

What’s changed is the issue of locality. The distance driven from home to enjoy some exercise outdoors. Previously the NPCC had said so long as the exercise was significantly longer than the drive it was likely to be OK. But the rest was left to interpretation.

I interpreted this position based on my circumstances, (and wanting to support the lockdown) and as I have easy access to alternative countryside from my doorstep, decided that more scenic exercise locations would wait. It was a 5 second decision, and an easy one to make.

So for me – it was not OK to drive to the Lakes, or Snowdon (both a couple of hours away) for an 8 hour walk. But the reason for that being my perspective – had more to do with the other guidance in effect which was to ‘minimise’ time outside generally, not the police guidance on whether it was a reasonable trip or not, with potential for a fine. I didn’t want for example to have my car break down, or be in an accident and stress the NHS, or interact with a garage unnecessarily.

I’m sure most people used common sense to get it about right, but whereas a 20 min drive to walk the dog somewhere quiet for an hour was unlikely to draw attention, a 45 min drive could, on another day be deemed unreasonable. People hate rules and look for ways around them, but soft guidance, to allow for the exceptions don’t really help in a pandemic. Other countries were much clearer on what was OK – I wrote before about France’s lockdown, and saw on Twitter this week people in other countries referring to the UK’s effort as a ‘Mockdown’ because it was so lax (fast food joints open, people shopping for “essentials” like paint etc).

But now, as we are told we are moving towards a new level of pandemic response – the new guidance is explicit – you can drive even long distances to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. This pic from the Governments briefing document issued today:

And this one from the governments FAQ’s here:

I was pleased to read that. I could (in theory) do some more walking further afield than in lockdown, albeit just day walks – as no accommodation is available. I know I’d be picking less popular places, am likely to go for sunrise on weekdays, avoid weekends altogether, and will miss busy periods as a result.

On todays walk from my doorstep I think I saw 4 people in total. But – Social Distancing is easy, until it isn’t though. As we’ve all found out in supermarkets, when the new systems are going well, until some bloke realises he forgot the pesto and is scared to go home without it, and does a contra-flow busting scuttle up the aisle. On a walk – you’re bound to meet a family of 4 out for a stroll at a narrow bit eventually! Not always possible to get out of the way.

Scanning Twitter today, the reactions from the people / and organisations in places like the Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria, Peak District, Lakes etc seems to broadly be unsupportive of the new guidance. Residents are scared about an influx of bored, furloughed people, heading for a day out from this Wednesday. I understand that apprehension.

They are worried that some of these visitors are bringing the virus with them and stressing local services like Mountain Rescue when someone inevitably turns an ankle or comes off their bike on a tricky bit. But the organisations who manage these locations are in a pickle. If they get funding from a government saying they should open, to allow the public to follow the new advice, be outside and socially distance, then it seems like they will need to help it happen, even if local residents, and employees are worried.

Some have asked people to be thoughtful to the concerns of locals and not return in a rush. To me that seems well-intentioned but won’t stop many visitors. At best, some people, who have thought about it, will stay home, knowing that at first at least, (during peak times this coming Saturday for example) any visits to popular places are likely to be a nightmare. Parking on country lanes where car parks are not quite open or are over crowded.

Some visitors will stay away, for a while because they don’t want to be on the background of some Facebook post or news article captioned with “look at this covidiot spraying the virus all over the countryside!”. But many sensible, well meaning people will head out, because they were told it was OK, and by the time they get there, very few will turn around because the car park is busy. In theory they can try and socially distance on a walk – but on pinch points, the 2m rule will fail. It hasn’t always worked around me, on wide roads with the less aware (of the rules), less regular walkers (wrong side of the road), less patient (some people reluctant to hang back even for a few seconds).

It seems to me that this tension could have been avoided, if the government hadn’t said that things change with just 3 days notice. A few more days – perhaps the following Monday would have given the organisations who run the parks a little bit more time to react.

Would it have made any difference? Who knows – but certainly this weekend when lockdown would have been in effect residents would have been happier. And after that it would have allowed a full week for people to space visits back to the countryside out before peak traffic over the weekend.

It would have allowed organisations to tell people when peak visitor numbers are likely – allowing those who check their websites for such info a chance to plan. “We’re not going on Sunday Brian, it’ll be a nightmare, lets go on Thursday morning”. “It says here that Pen-Y-Ghent has more challenging access, and less parking, than these other options…lets go there and not be crowded”. It would have allowed the teams reopening car parks to consider (in the bigger ones at least), if some pinch point changes could be made – e.g. temporary gates or entry / exit changes to avoid ingress into the 2m.

People will visit, because they have been told it is both legal, and acceptable by the government. That is in stark contrast to the understandable concerns of residents in beauty / rural hotspots. Some visitors may be patient and give rural areas a few days, maybe even a few weeks, before they go back. But others will not – imagine if your lockdown has been a city centre, but you’re sensible and followed advice so have stayed away previously. Staying away even longer because some locals don’t feel quite comfortable with the governments advice will likely fall on deaf ears.

How much longer after the government has said it is OK to visit, before locals agree with them? A month, 3 months, next summer, when a vaccine is found? Better to accept that people will undoubtedly visit, and that they have been told they can, and try to ‘flatten the curve’ as was said at the start of the pandemic, to spread those visits out away from peak periods, and push hard on the social distancing required (perhaps in an updated Countryside Code?) when in the countryside.

For my part – I will be avoiding anywhere likely to be a hotspot this weekend, and watching very closely for when it feels right, for me, to get back on the Pennine Way as a series of out and back day walks. Soon I hope.

Note – a day later (Tuesday 2nd May) here is an example of a national park seeking exactly to flatten the curve of visits post lockdown. I think the tone is spot on. Well done the South Downs National Park Authority.

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