Social distancing this week above Pontypool
Today I was quoted in a piece by Jude Rogers in the Guardian looking at the different approaches of Wales and England to the Coronavirus crisis. The impact of devolution has been greater than most of us expected and is perhaps the subject of another post, but for now, I want to expand on my concerns over continued 'stay local' message in Wales, its impact on health, wellbeing and our civil liberties.
The rule and its impact.
Unlike in England, the Welsh Assembly Government has allowed only limited relaxation of the restriction on travel for non-essential purposes. As a consequence, after thirteen weeks of lockdown and some of the lowest rates of infection in the UK, the people of Wales are still required to limit any travel to a radius of five miles from home. The so-called five-mile rule has been widely criticised by many in rural communities and indeed some informal concession has been made along the lines of 'use common sense', but despite increasingly urgent pleas from the tourist industry the Welsh Assembly Government remains stubbornly resistant to changing its 'stay local' message.
The impact of the rule is far reaching - not only does it discriminate against those who have relatives outside their immediate community, it continues to minimise access to the countryside despite all the evidence that the outdoors is the safest environment for us all. Aside from the detriments to our health and wellbeing, it is also an immense restriction on our civil liberties. That policymakers seem increasingly oblivious or unconcerned about this speaks loudly - and worryingly so - of the extent to which we and our freedoms are being psychologically manipulated by this crisis.
Why the rule is absurd
It is quite clear that travel does not transmit the virus, nor does it magically increase in strength the further we get from home. Staying local, in and of itself, does not reduce transmission - if anything quite the opposite. That is why we have food delivered safely to our stores and yet suffered an epidemic in care homes. What matters is not the distance we travel but our behaviour when we arrive - it is staying APART which keeps us safe, and any rule should ultimately be a means to this end.
Currently, however, we have the situation where the 330,000 residents of Cardiff are free - and supposedly safe - to socially distance in their virtual cage, but a family there cannot travel to the empty hills above Pontypridd for a walk in the fresh air. Yesterday a friend of mine wrote to moan that over the last 13 weeks he had walked every combination of the five-mile radius from his house in Newport - the canal he complained was rammed even in the early morning and the few parks nearby were the same. And yet by driving ten miles up the valley he - and his neighbours - could walk that same canal in much greater safety - or perhaps visit Wentwood forest which opened its car parks yesterday but under the rules is only accessible to a tiny number of people.
This is not only absurd and damaging to our mental health and wellbeing, it is also an opportunity missed in promoting the countryside of Wales as a resource for safe recreation. As we open up non-essential retail where do we think is the safest for a family to spend their leisure - St David's Centre or St David's Head; Roath Park or the Rhinogs - at Cardiff Ikea or Cadair Idris? The answer is plain as a pikestaff.
So why does the government persist?
The Welsh government's refusal to explain its reasoning in scientific terms is telling - the reality must, therefore, be that the rule is a proxy for managing other concerns. Here we get into the shady world of politics and its inevitable withholds, but my own conclusion is that the real reasons for maintaining the stay local message are threefold.
The first is a fear of what we might call geo-spread - the notion that visitors to the countryside will somehow bring the virus to rural areas and that local facilities would be overrun. These fears have been exacerbated by a widely publicised letter earlier in the crisis from doctors, the whole public hysteria over the NHS and some sensationalist press reporting of gatherings at hot spots in England - frankly, the good weather hasn't helped. The logic for this fear diminishes daily and yet the concern persists with ever more desperate attempts by some communities to justify why it's not safe to come here quite yet.
This plays to the second concern - a political fear of those few loud voices in rural communities who take a fortress view to the crisis, regarding city folk as an invading plague who cannot be trusted to socially distance - as if this virus and the higher infection rates in urban areas were somehow their fault! The recently introduced concept of 'community consent' is effectively a stealth addition to the tests set for the easing of lockdown and is clearly not relevant to the science - nor is it a justifiable reason for restricting our civil liberties, but that's for another time too.
And lastly - the really big unspoken - there is a fear of people coming in from England. Ultimately, I believe the 5-mile rule is now primarily a proxy for closing the border! I say this because we can't seriously be so concerned about the level of infection in Wales alone or indeed the adequacy of our preparations for a second wave - if so, we really do have a warped view of the importance of our freedoms and the needs of our economy.
How should we go forward?
Ideally, the government should remove the five-mile rule immediately. More realistically they should prepare for its removal at the end of the next three week review period. In parallel, we should take two further actions.
First - despite my view that the attitudes of some in the 'stay away' lobby are somewhat shabby and ungenerous, there is clearly work to be done in reassuring local communities that a return to free movement is not to be feared. The government should help in the provision of Covid -Secure facilities and work to promote best practice guidelines for those who would visit the countryside. There has been much good work in areas such as the Lake District and we should take the lessons from this and apply them to Wales.
Second - there is a massive opportunity to launch a 'Get Outdoors' campaign that would have long term benefits for health, wellbeing and the tourist economy of Wales. Rather than restricting people to their urban environments, we should promote our vast natural resources as among the safest environments to spend leisure time. Our national parks should open as soon as possible and we should encourage people to visit less known areas rather than the traditional hot spots. This isn't about satisfying mountaineers and kayakers like me, it's about encouraging families and people of limited outdoor experience to see the opportunities and benefits of their own countryside - it's about pride and thanksgiving for the resources we have on our doorsteps and actively sharing those as widely as possible.
We all of us have concerns and fears in relation to this crisis - and each of us will stack and collate those in different order. I actually have much sympathy for the difficulties politicians and advisors face - this is not easy and it's important that we try to be objective rather than simply pursuing our own interests.
But when it is clear to any intelligent person that the rules are not logical; when we have a tourist industry that is screaming to be heard - and when we have such a divide between England and Wales that it undermines our sense of nationhood - then we must think again. And although throughout this piece I have been relatively light on the impact to our freedoms and human rights, I suggest we should not regard their curtailment so lightly or be so trusting that they will return anytime soon - at the very least they deserve more explanation than slogans which do not stand scrutiny.
I would like to acknowledge the influence of Nick Kemp and his excellent website Parkswatch Scotland in my forming these views - in particular, the Stay Apart slogan came from his suggestions and I would encourage those interested in these issues to follow his blog - in most part it is easy to substitute the word Scotland for Wales as the issues are much the same.