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This past weekend brought with it sunshine and a renewed sense of hope after an emotionally trying week which saw the UK’s coronavirus death count soar.
But with the sunshine came testing times for many people across the UK, especially those with no outdoor space in their homes.
Parks have proved a lifeline as a place to exercise or simply stretch your legs and get some air – but as the UK strives to maintain its lockdown measures, some have been criticised for not following social distancing by indulging in a bit of non-essential sunbathing or congregating in groups of more than two.
On Sunday, authorities closed Brockwell Park in south London following reports that more than 3,000 people took to the park the day before, “many of them sunbathing or in large groups”. Lambeth Council clarified on Twitter that it was “a minority of people” who had not complied, but said the closure “wouldn’t need to happen if people followed the clear instructions from the government”.
Health secretary Matt Hancock initially warned that even tighter rules on social distancing could be imposed if people don’t follow the rules – including the banning of outdoor exercise.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, he said: “I don’t want to have to take that action, of course I don’t, but we have already demonstrated that we are prepared to take the action that’s necessary to get this virus under control.”
He later said a stricter lockdown wasn’t imminent, but added: “What we are doing is being absolutely clear that the current rules must be followed.”
So why can’t you sunbathe or sit in the park?
Millions of key workers – NHS staff, of course, but also teachers, care workers, and supermarket and delivery staff – are risking their lives in the fight against coronavirus.
For the rest of us, the government has a simple message – you’ll have seen it on social media, in TV ad breaks or even in the Queen’s Sunday broadcast – that staying home is the best way we can do our bit. When we must go out – for essential shopping or exercise – social distancing is key to flattening the curve.
Experts talk of how a virus spreads in terms of the R0 – or how many people one person can infect. The aim of the lockdown is to reduce that below 1, meaning one person infects less than one other person and overall case numbers fall.
If everybody is out and about all the time, “the virus could spread easily,” explains Dr Dominic Pimenta, a UK-based cardiology registrar. “If everybody was locked 100% in the house, it couldn’t spread at all.”
The struggle is real for those people without gardens, balconies or outdoor spaces but a helpful way to think about sunbathing is as a luxury right now, like going to a cinema, coffee shop, pub or sports arena, which are also all closed.
Some have asked why it’s ok to go out to the supermarket but not to sit or sunbathe outside. The government’s guidance is that we should only be going to the shops for essential items – for example, the food we need in order not to go hungry and the products to keep ourselves and our homes clean and safe.
A short bout of daily exercise outdoors – which can be as simple as going for a walk, run or cycle at a distance from others – is allowed within the guidelines, because it’s deemed essential for people’s physical and mental health.
“Exercise is still important, and so is food, so these need to be undertaken with strict measures to avoid contact that can spread,” says Dr Pimenta.
Mental health campaigner Hope Virgo warned on Twitter that if parks were to be closed and lockdown measures tightened to the point where people couldn’t leave their homes even for exercise, this would have a huge impact on those with more serious mental health issues for whom physical activity is a lifeline.
Good and bad behaviour is catching
Another issue with sitting in a park, even when socially distanced, is that it sends a sign that others can follow suit. If one person does it, more may want to. With crowds, social distancing becomes harder and the virus can spread.
“If you are sitting on a park bench, people tend to accumulate – it is very difficult to prevent that,” Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, said at Sunday’s government press conference.
“Having rules where we are getting all of the benefits and minimising the risks and harms is an important approach to maintain.”
As Dr Pimenta explains: “Fundamentally it’s about reducing the spread of the virus, which is shared by droplets from coughing or sneezing.”
Non-essential trips outside – for example, gathering on public transport or in a park – increase the likelihood of the virus spreading between households and the pandemic continuing, he adds. “The more people in a space, the less likely social distancing can be maintained, and the longer they stay there, the greater the chance of exposure.
“People flouting these rules increase the spread and continue the harm to the community and the immense pressure on the NHS. So please, stay at home.”
And if you still find yourself tempted to sunbathe in a park – or on the beach – over the bank holiday weekend, it might be a comfort to remember: we’re not stuck indoors, we’re safe in our homes.