Outdoor enjoyment: is it banned?

A look at the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 is sobering, if not frightening. In a complete inversion of the norms of society, we are not allowed by law to leave our homes, except for very specific reasons. That’s the biggest legal constraint on our people, ever, including during two world wars.

We all know why, and few would doubt that these laws and our compliance with them is necessary, at least until science and the Government has got to grips with the nature of the challenge posed by SARS-CoV-2.

Ben Lomond has plenty of space for social distancing

It’s been translated by both the UK and the Scottish Government into the simple, powerful, single ‘stay at home’ message. That, I suspect, stems from Westminster, and I think we all know why: it has to be simple enough for members of the UK Cabinet to understand.

But one of those specific reasons you can have for going out is for exercise, and it’s here that actually there’s complexity, and space for debate, based on science and rational thinking, and maybe the idea that the public can make sensible judgements.

The LAW says you can leave your home for exercise, without a time limit or mention of where that exercise should be. The written GUIDANCE from the Scottish Government https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-staying-at-home-and-away-from-others-social-distancing/pages/staying-at-home/ then suggests that it should be for as short a time as possible, with no official guidance on whether you can travel anywhere for that exercise.

Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s respected and now well-known National Clinical Director, has taken the guidance further on exercise, and said: “This is about going for a short walk locally, a run or a short bike ride, not spending time on your favourite sport or hobby.

“If you travel further afield, there is a risk you might come into contact with other people, whether you plan to or not, so please keep this to an absolute minimum. “

So there is a clear law, then some guidance, and then additional guidance, and, surely, a question over why travelling a bit further than your immediate locality poses a greater risk of contact with others.

For instance, some might think exercising in a local park in Glasgow, with perhaps dozens of others about, poses a greater risk that driving out to Mugdock Park or the Whangie, Conic Hill or up into Arrochar and the Trossachs. There might be dozens of people there, but they are spread over a much larger area. Yes, bring your own picnic, don’t go in the local shops when you’re in the countryside, be sensible, but surely a walk in empty country is as low a risk as you can get?

Then there’s the question of how long you go out for. Once you’re out, maintaining social distance and avoiding contact with gates, which pose a tiny risk, could we not spend a few hours tramping the hills?

Jason Leitch’s line about ‘not spending time on your favourite pastime or hobby’ does him a disservice: he’s been a star of this crisis, but it’s a wrong call. If you’re going out for exercise, why not enjoy it on your mountain bike on some local trails? Why not to enjoy the peace of a riverside, and maybe take photographs of wild birds while you’re out? Our slice of freedom doesn’t have to be drained of all joy.

And there’s enforcement. The cops can enforce the law, but they should be careful not to try to enforce the guidance – it is, after all, just guidance. The furore over sunbathing down south also reminds us that ‘going out for exercise’ is a pretty middle-class idea, and other people’s needs – for a bit of sunlight on skin and relaxing in an open space – shouldn’t be ignored.

Going out for relaxation and recreation, within social or physical distancing limits, would be a better phrase.

And then we get on to farmers and other country dwellers we’ve heard of trying to bar city-dwellers from the countryside … a whole other can of worms, but the sound of pitchforks being sharpened is never attractive.

There is so much to say about this, and I may be barking up a whole copse of wrong trees, but there is space for debate.

You can at present contact the Scottish Government on Covid-19 issues such as the regulations and guidance via the feedback section at the end of this document: https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-framework-decision-making/pages/10/

There is no specific email for views on the exercise side of things at the moment: it seems to be a secondary issue to Government, but don’t let that stop you.

It’s vital, so fire in a view: you may even think the law or the guidance needs tightening up, you might want them changing in other ways, but without folk lobbying, nothing will happen, and the assumption that going out into the open air and actually enjoying it is a bad thing will sink ever deeper roots.