LAST week I was out in a large park with a number of friends, enjoying the unexpected warmth of a sunny February afternoon. To protect the innocent, the guilty (and me), I’ll spare you the details but at least three of the government’s restrictions on outdoor socialising were being breached. A couple of young women wearing face masks approached. ‘Don’t you understand the risks you’re taking?’ one of them remonstrated. Slightly taken aback, I calmly pointed out that there’s no credible evidence of Covid transmission outdoors, so there was no real risk to any of us. One of the young women tutted at me, while her friend continued, ‘I’m a doctor’. In a display of Herculean self-control, I refrained from calling her ‘love’, ‘young lady’ or ‘Karen’ and instead waxed philosophical: that was an argument from authority and she needed some facts and logic to back up her position if she wanted me to take her seriously. I pointed out that an article in the Guardian had reported that there had not been a single case of Covid transmission identified at UK beaches last year, despite the panic and outrage about the British public heading to the seaside. The debate didn’t go anywhere and the young ladies soon departed.
Of all the lunacies inflicted on us in the time of Covid, none has been more stark raving bonkers than the restrictions on outdoor activities including tennis and golf. The Government tells us to stay at home.
‘The science’ points to outdoor viral transmission being extremely rare. An analysis of more than 1,000 Covid outbreaks in China could link only one to outdoor transmission, which caused two cases (most outbreaks resulted in three to five cases). A study in Japan estimated the risk of catching Covid indoors at about 19 times greater than outdoors. The weather will make a massive difference to transmission; there were no reported Covid cases arising from the public going to the beach last summer because sunlight destroys viruses in between six and 30 minutes. The only Covidiots are those hyperventilating about people enjoying some fresh air.
Such blindingly obvious observations haven’t prevented a loss of reason among those who should know better. Asked whether crowds could cause case numbers to rise again, Professor Calum Semple, Professor of Child Health and Outbreak Medicine at the University of Liverpool and a member of the government’s scientific advisory committee Sage (has a body ever had a less appropriate acronym?) said: ‘This is a big worry to us.’ Trish Greenhalgh, Professor of Primary Health Care Sciences at Oxford University, said ‘puffing and panting’ joggers should wear face masks because they can transmit Covid to people they pass on the street.
Stoking fear of being outdoors will do more harm than good. Worrying people about transmission where it is extremely unlikely to occur increases the risk they’ll have their guard down when caution might be called for. The mental fatigue of keeping people in their homes is taking a silent toll which will manifest itself in anxiety and depression. Denying the opportunity to socialise outdoors in public may only lead people to meet furtively indoors, where the risk of catching Covid is much greater.
The relaxation of Covid regulations begins next Monday when, for the first time since the lockdown began, two people may meet in an ‘outdoor public space’ for recreational purposes which include a coffee, drink or picnic. Only by March 29 will six people – or two households – be allowed to meet outdoors, including in back gardens. But this is becoming irrelevant; people are meeting outdoors in greater numbers and will do so as the weather improves and lockdown frustration grows.
The enforcement of restrictions on outdoor socialising has damaged the reputation of the police, with numerous instances of heavy-handed enforcement of restrictions. These operations are probably driven by chief constables wanting to look tough with generally little enthusiasm from ordinary coppers. Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, has stated that his members don’t want to enforce this law. ‘Police don’t want to police this,’ he said. ‘We have had enough of this. It is not policeable. It is not manageable.’ The reality is that when police officers aren’t under the eye of their superiors, they largely turn a blind eye to those socialising in groups outdoors. So the law has become a kind of kabuki theatre, where the authorities wear the mask of its enforcers and the public pretend to obey it.
The world and his dog know these rules are not supported by evidence and are unenforceable, and so will carry on breaking them until the law reflects reason. Some have quietly taken the law into their own hands, removing barricades from a playground in Regent’s Park. One has to wonder about the sanity and humanity of anyone who regards swings, slides and roundabouts as a public health risk. Twitter described this liberation as ‘England’s equivalent of the storming of the Bastille’. It was a very English sort of Bastille; no property was damaged, no one was injured and the result was a lot of children playing and laughing. So there’s your mission for the weekend – au cours de récréation, citoyens!