by Freddie Sayers
Monday, 23
March 2020
Debate
09:51

Don’t shut the parks, Boris — give us rules

Primrose Hill on Sunday afternoon: household groups were doing their best to stay appropriately distanced

The magnolias and the cherry blossom are coming out, the sky suddenly seems bluer than before, and around London over the weekend families and individuals went out to put their faces in the sun and feel a little moment of joy.

Despite the bizarre drumbeat of demands in the media for maximal shutdown, and the almost gleeful finger-pointing of people’s transgressions over the weekend, the prime minister’s reluctance to shut down the parks and open spaces is wise. If this crisis is going to go on throughout spring and into summer, access to the great outdoors might just make life bearable — a not inconsiderable factor for a government to take into account.

I was out in a London park yesterday, and mostly people were doing their best. Occasionally it was tricky on a narrow path, but with a bit of help it would have been very possible to observe the 2m social distancing guidance throughout.

Instead of taking the easy option of shutting them down, the government should make it the responsibility of every market, park, and public space to implement measures that make social distancing easy to observe. Rather like restaurants having to observe hygiene standards, it can be up to each individual venue, with the penalty of being closed down if they are shown to be inadequate.

So parks might introduce booking time slots to avoid overcrowding; they might change their paths and walkways into a one-way route and paint 2m distancing marks on the paths, like for cars on a motorway; they might introduce stewards to help police it. If they need to temporarily shut while this is worked out, then fair enough.

What we need are rules, clearly spelled out, that everyone can understand. The English like rules — they protect the places you cherish, and end up liberating because they tell you what you can do as well as what you can’t.

With this approach, the National Trust, which took the sad decision yesterday to close all its gardens and parks, could gradually reopen them once they are confident they have systems in place. This will involve thinking of new ways to manage queues (perhaps repurposing a car park and painting a winding path on the tarmac with guidelines for appropriate intervals, and requiring disposable gloves to be worn if using any facilities).

With suitable systems in place, families could be encouraged to go camping, cycling, and hiking in nearby wilderness areas, avoiding any external contact. Sports facilities like golf and tennis should be permitted to remain open, with new practices for ensuring social distancing and proper hygiene.

These systems are not beyond the wit of humankind to devise, and they will have the effect of making this grisly spring — possibly summer — survivable and compliance with social distancing only better. Avoiding unnecessary deaths is rightly the priority of the government, but finding ways to make life worth living should be right up there alongside.

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