There are few things about Covid-19 everyone agrees on except perhaps one: the risk of contracting or spreading the virus in outdoor spaces is extremely low.
Britain’s parks, beaches, fields, forests, mountains and lakes - areas that comprise over 95 per cent of the country - are Covid secure in a way that pubs, gyms, cinemas and restaurants never will be until the virus is fully brought to heel.
It is on this simple truth ministers must focus if they are to avoid a repeat of the calamity sparked last summer when the first national lockdown was unwound too quickly and crudely.
Even with hospitals full, there are already calls for the government to “open up”. Those voices will only grow louder and unless ministers can find a way of allowing business to better exploit the great outdoors they will almost certainly be bounced into making the same set of mistakes again.
Here are urgent five reforms ministers should put in place now to make spring and summer bearable, profitable and safe in pandemic Britain:
1. Hand pavements and roads over to local business
Current infection levels and the new variant of the virus mean busy shops, restaurants and bars are not going to be safe anytime soon. Sceptics may insist there is “no proof” the hospitality sector is a particular risk but no one seriously doubts the virus spreads fastest in crowded indoor venues.
The answer is to allow those businesses to make much better use of the low risk, outside space that surrounds them. It may seem like an odd time to start planning it now but spring will come round much quicker than we think.
Local councils made some moves in this direction last summer but they need to go much further. The default position should be that high street businesses have the right to utilise the pavements and roads adjacent to them, putting in place temporary structures that can be left up overnight.
Cars and public transport should be diverted to run through a limited number of non-commercial streets. In a phrase once used by eco-warriors but now much more appropriate to struggling high street business owners: “reclaim the streets”.
2. Free landowners to create thousands of extra campsites
New variants of the virus mean international travel is likely to be all but impossible this summer. Even within the EU governments are being urged to put restrictions in place. Demand for staycations can therefore be expected to boom like never before this summer.
Last year staycation demand was more muted but even then the nation’s existing overnight facilities were quickly booked out.
Local councils did not move quick enough to allow landowners to open new camping areas and the national parks did little or nothing to facilitate the boom in demand. So-called “wild camping” proliferated, sparking a cat and mouse game between holidaymakers and park wardens.
Ministers must move now to clear bureaucratic hurdles so that local businesses can plan for and meet this summer’s domestic demand. Yes, it may involve portaloos temporarily being installed on our green and pleasant hills but needs must.
3. Open-air summer schools, plus galleries and museums for our kids
Countries including Norway moved quickly last year to innovate for children and schools, the cohort which has been most hard hit by lockdown.
Classes were reimagined and moved into parks, empty galleries, museums and even beaches and fields. Because teaching time was lost in lockdown, summer schools were set up to run over the holiday period, allowing children to catch up.
Britain cannot afford to miss this boat again. Headteachers and local councils need to get their heads together now to make the most of outdoor and safe indoor cultural spaces which are currently empty and likely to remain so over the spring and summer months.
It is, unfortunately, an area plagued by health and safety bureaucracy, meaning there is always an excuse not to act.
A reader contacted me today to say teachers at her children's school could not take the kids to the park because they were not insured for it. All the more reason for ministers to step in now and sort it.
4. Sort out the beaches
Remember those scenes last year - tens of thousands of day-trippers squeezed onto a single beach with not a lifeguard on duty because they had not completed their “covid training” yet? Well, it cannot be allowed to happen again.
Britain is surrounded by beautiful beaches, and ministers need to find a way to prevent everyone from heading for the same one while at the same time making them safe.
If the chief executive of the Royal Life Saving Society has not yet been called in to check that it is quadrupling its capacity for 2021 they should be. Just as important, beach parking and other facilities need to be improved so that they can cope with a surge in demand.
5. Open outdoor sports facilities and allow gyms to move outdoors
Even in the midst of the current third wave of the virus, it is hard to understand why outdoor tennis, golf and other well-spaced sports facilities have had to shut down. Yes, they pose some risk but it is small, and the health gains - mental and physical - of enabling people to exercise are vast.
Be that as it may, outdoor sports should be prioritised when it comes to the current restrictions being lifted. And again it is an area ministers need to think creatively about.
Might clubs and parks be allowed to stay open much later than normal? Can restrictions which prevent some running clubs and other exercise groups gathering in public parks be lifted centrally? Could outdoor school sports facilities and even commercial stadiums be opened for public use?
Perhaps most important, is to find ways that indoor gyms and health studios can operate outdoors. Like pub owners, this sector has disappeared down the rabbit hole of claiming their indoor facilities are safe when they are patently not.
Ministers need to find a means of allowing the hugely valuable people that run these businesses to move outdoors, perhaps moving their classes and even some of their equipment into local parks.
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