The much-anticipated loosening of lockdown started today with the release of detailed government guidance that follows a speech last night by Boris Johnson. However, as a result of the change in tone at the top, the advice from the UK's four administrations has begun to diverge, while the central Government line is already being contradicted by outdoor bodies and some authorities at a local level.
Anyone hoping for full clarity will be disappointed. Nevertheless the UK Government's Covid-19 Recovery Strategy does now offer an opportunity for any English climbers and hillwalkers who are keen to get out despite the persistence of serious questions about the risk of virus transmission.
The latest easing of lockdown measures applies chiefly to England, while the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to take a tougher, more cautious stance. While the message in England has become a much-parodied 'stay alert', the call elsewhere in the UK is still first and foremost to 'stay at home'.
Under the terms of the UK Government's new Covid-19 Recovery Strategy, people in England will, from Wednesday 13 May: be allowed to exercise as often as they like; be permitted to drive any distance (within England) to outdoor spaces; and be able to meet up with one other person not from their household.
With no caveat on distance travelled or the type of activity undertaken, the new wording would seem to imply that many outdoor activities can now be carried out without fear of police action.
However, with outdoor gyms and playgrounds remaining closed in England due to the higher risk of close contact and touching surfaces, a degree of ambiguity arguably persists surrounding rock climbing, where there is a chance of many people touching the same holds. Though the wording allows some room for uncertainty, it appears that climbers would need to remain 2 metres from a partner not from their household.
With a continued emphasis on social distancing, hand hygiene and the acknowledgement that all activities continue to carry some risk, the onus for assessing the risk and taking precautionary measures is now de facto being placed on individuals. In effect the key call whether or not to climb or walk, and where, has become something closer to a moral question.
The UK Government's Covid-19 Recovery Strategy states that:
"SAGE advise that the risk of infection outside is significantly lower than inside, so the Government is updating the rules so that, as well as exercise, people can now also spend time outdoors subject to: not meeting up with any more than one person from outside your household; continued compliance with social distancing guidelines to remain two metres (6ft) away from people outside your household; good hand hygiene, particularly with respect to shared surfaces; and those responsible for public places being able to put appropriate measures in place to follow the new COVID-19 Secure guidance.
"People may exercise outside as many times each day as they wish. For example, this would include angling and tennis. You will still not be able to use areas like playgrounds, outdoor gyms or ticketed outdoor leisure venues, where there is a higher risk of close contact and touching surfaces. You can only exercise with up to one person from outside your household – this means you should not play team sports, except with members of your own household.
"People may drive to outdoor open spaces irrespective of distance, so long as they respect social distancing guidance while they are there, because this does not involve contact with people outside your household.
"When travelling to outdoor spaces, it is important that people respect the rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and do not travel to different parts of the UK where it would be inconsistent with guidance or regulations issued by the relevant devolved administration.
"These measures may come with some risk; it is important that everyone continues to act responsibly, as the large majority have done to date. The infection rate will increase if people begin to break these rules and, for example, mix in groups in parks, which will trigger the need for further restrictions."
From today the advice in Wales is that:
- Exercise can take place outdoors as often as you like, as long as physical distancing rules are observed, and you remain alone or with members of your household.
- People must continue to stay local and any exercise should start and end at home, and not involve travelling a significant distance from home.
- There is an expectation that a 'reasonable excuse' to exercise does not include activities that involve a 'significant degree of risk'. Exercise, therefore, should generally be limited to walking, running and cycling.
- Many locations remain closed to visitors, including footpaths on many popular hills in Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons.
The Welsh minister responsible for Covid-19 recovery, Jeremy Miles, said that England's new rules on travel "do not permit people to get in their car and drive to destinations in Wales. And that also means people getting in their cars in England."
North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner, Arfon Jones, criticised the fragmentation of measures as a "complete mess".
"How are we supposed to get the message across to people living in England?" he asked.
"It's hard enough ensuring that those living in Wales are aware of the Welsh policy, because so many tune in to television channels from across the border. It's going to be very difficult to get the message across that they should not come to Wales because the measures are different, and that they will be stopped and fined if they break these rules."
In Scotland, the advice states that:
- Exercise can take place outdoors as often as you like, as long you observe physical distancing rules and are alone or with members of your household.
- No picnics, sunbathing or barbecues.
- Exercise should be done in your local area. You should not drive to beauty spots, national parks, parks or beaches.
- High risk exercise (that may result in injury and require medical care or emergency services support) should be avoided.
"If you change the message from stay at home to something vaguer then you don't give clear messages to the public" said Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
"I do not know what 'Stay Alert' means."
The first minister said that Scotland's new exercise guidelines were not a "licence to meet up in groups" at parks or beaches, and that there was an ongoing need for people to maintain social distancing and not mix with other households.
Guidance covering a wider range of outdoor activities is expected in days.
Meanwhile the consensus from Mountain Rescue Teams and other bodies is still a request to avoid hillwalking or climbing:
Nothing has changed here in Scotland apart from now being allowed to exercise locally more than once a day. Advice is still to stay off the mountains for now! Thanks to all those helping to keep MR Callouts to a minimum and following advice ⬇️ Stay Safe, Stay Local, Stay Well https://t.co/P1smsxdSKA— arranmountainrescue (@arranMRT) May 10, 2020
Unlimited travel in England
While France, for instance, has set a 100km radius rule to travel from home, the newly liberalised regime in England makes no reference to distance. That's a mistake, according to South Lakes MP Tim Farron, who is calling on the government to add a distance clause in response to fears that the Lake District faces a mass influx of visitors:
I have asked the PM to make it clear that there must be a limit on the number of miles people can travel for exercise.— Tim Farron (@timfarron) May 11, 2020
Otherwise we will see a huge influx of people from outside of Cumbria travelling to the Lake District this weekend - risking the lives of visitors and locals. pic.twitter.com/heeTTSvHEF
What other organisations are saying
While critics have lambasted the UK government's mixed messaging throughout the Coronavirus crisis, the flow of advice and statements from other sources has done little to clarify matters for a public eager for easy answers.
Many organisations appear to be working to mitigate the likely consequences of England's opening up.
Despite the relaxation of the rules in England, the Ramblers are still asking members and other walkers to keep it local:
"It is clear that Coronavirus has not gone away, and we need to continue to help control the virus to save lives. Although there are some changes to government guidance, the lockdown is still in force across the UK" they said in a statement today.
"We recommend that you continue to stay at home as much as possible, stay local and consider walking at quieter times and locations where physical distancing may be easier. Whilst we understand the temptation for some to drive to your favourite walking spot, we urge our members and all walkers to continue to take extra care and to walk responsibly."
Some residents of National Parks in England fear they will now bear the brunt of a mass return to the countryside, with particular concern being raised in Cumbria, parts of which are currently suffering the highest virus infection rates in the country.
Today South Lakes police tweeted that prospective visitors to the Lake District should "take a long hard look at your own conscience."
Before considering travelling to #Cumbria #LakeDistrict please grab a brew☕️, examine this map, and take a long hard look at your own conscience. We urge you to use common sense and to continue to exercise close to your own home. We need to break the cycle of infection #lockdown pic.twitter.com/bC5yQOMrqr— South Lakes Police (@SouthLakesPol) May 10, 2020
In an apparent attempt to minimise issues arising from Westminster's green light to travel to the outdoors, Richard Leafe, the Lake District National Park Authority's Chief Executive, has today asked people to stay away.
"Following the Government's announcement that people will be able to travel for exercise from Wednesday (13 May), we know that many will be keen to visit the Lake District" he said.
"This is understandable for the many physical and mental health benefits the National Park provides. However, sadly Cumbria currently has one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the UK, therefore keeping our staff and local communities safe must remain our priority. For example, our mountain rescue teams are made up of volunteers, many of whom work in the NHS and other frontline professions, so we cannot afford to put unnecessary pressure on them. So for now, we're asking people not to rush back to the Lake District - help protect our communities, the fells will still be here when this passes.
"Campsites, hotels, restaurants and many businesses across the Lake District remain closed. When the time is right, we look forward to welcoming visitors back to the Lake District and have been working with partners to put measures in place that will help keep people safe, such as new car park information and availability to help plan ahead.
"For now, we ask everyone who lives in and visits the Lake District to act responsibly, continue to observe social distancing and stay safe."
"We wait to hear further details from the Government."
There's more Covid-19 information at lakedistrict.gov.uk
The British Mountaineering Council are currently working on revised guidelines based on the UK Government's new position. We will report these when they are published.