Thousands of people enjoyed the first reasonably pleasant day of the year to get out and about around Bristol today.
At the Downs, people queued for takeaway coffee from the coffee shop, families played cricket and there was even an ice cream van at the Sea Walls.
But at the same time, the roads around the Downs were busy with traffic, as people drove there for a nice Sunday afternoon walk.
The images and video of the scene, which was replicated in parks and open spaces across Bristol has prompted questions and a thoughtful debate about the merits of this during a pandemic, when desperate doctors and Government ministers are urging everyone to ‘stay at home’.
It also flags up grey areas in Government guidance, and how different people are interpreting what are already vague rules.
The over-arching message is pretty clear – ‘Stay At Home’.
But people are allowed out – in fact it is encouraged for the sake of everyone’s mental health. Nothing is better to clear the head than a walk in the woods or a jog or cycle around a park. And people are allowed out for ‘essential’ shopping – but people who timidly go into their corner shop for a loaf of bread because they’ve run out have a different view of what is ‘essential’ to someone on their fourth visit to a retail park for the day, because they’ve seen a bargain in The Range.
Bristol Live tweeted a video of the scene at the Sea Walls side of the Downs, complete with ice cream van, people pulling up in cars, dozens of walkers as far as the eye could see and even a family playing cricket. We’re not seeking to divide opinion, merely ask a question and try to arrive at some form of consensus.
The scene was one you would see on any given Sunday afternoon for years – it didn’t look like there was a lockdown in place at all.
Having said that, the High Streets and city centre shopping malls were empty, and there is nothing much else to do other than enjoy the green open spaces of the Downs, or Ashton Court, or Stockwood Open Space, or St George’s Park.
While there was an unusually summery look to the scene – the ice cream van is unusual for January – this isn’t a case of a packed beach in Bournemouth or camera angles that appear to show people packed together on Weston prom when the side perspective will show they are far apart.
But the scene highlights a challenging conundrum for everyone in this terrible situation. Some of us aren’t lucky or healthy enough to risk or want to go out for a walk like this, but for those of us lucky enough to be able to, taking the opportunity of a sunny Sunday afternoon when the rest of the week is dark and wet and cold and gloomy seems a no-brainer. People are literally going mad stuck inside all week.
But what happens when everyone has the same idea? When everyone goes to the same place? When everyone’s desire for space means that space is filled by the people looking for it? Anyone who has walked along the seafront in Clevedon between Christmas and New Year, or along the Harbourside in Bristol, or on the paths of Ashton Court or Blaise Castle since lockdown started will know that feeling of being unable to stay distant from people.
This isn’t an article lambasting people for going out, or even driving to the Downs. Nor is it one that says everything is fine and we should be throwing caution over the side of the Gorge and letting the wind catch it. It’s complicated and tricky, isn’t it?
People are still catching coronavirus in Bristol in their hundreds each week. Our hospitals are essentially full, even after pretty much most of the routine NHS stuff has been cancelled or postponed. Like everything to do with Covid-19, what we do and how we assess risk is nuanced, not black and white.
The issue is that one person’s idea of safe space and risk is different to another’s. When the Government’s instructions are vague, many people use that uncertainty to do the minimum they have to stick to the rules, rather than the maximum they perhaps should do to minimise the risk to themselves and others.
The Government in England have not, unlike in Wales and Scotland, specified by what they mean as ‘staying local’ when it comes to going out, and this has caused some controversy.
In Wales, people are only allowed to travel five miles. In Scotland, and in England by some police forces, people have been told ‘if you have to drive, it’s not local’.
Driving from Bristol to the Mendips to enjoy the view is local for the couple fined for doing that last week, but not for the police who fined them, it seems, but driving to the Downs – as many did today – is not against the law, or maybe the spirit of the law either.
One dog-walker, who lives near the harbourside, told Bristol Live she drove to the Downs on Sunday. “I came here because the harbourside isn’t safe – it’s way too busy and people don’t keep their distance,” she said.
“It seems crazy that I’m driving to the Downs to avoid people that have driven to the harbourside. In Wales, exercise has to start and end on foot or bike from your front door.
“At the Downs, there were lots of people round the coffee shop too, and groups of four, six. People are supposed to be exercising, not meeting in groups to stand around with a coffee, chatting. I get why they are doing it, but it’s not the rules.
“But we’re all miserable, the weather is finally nice and living in the city, we all need a bit of space. So it’s tricky. Ashton Court is so busy at the weekends, that people can’t park and the queues for the cafe are mad – but there aren’t many open green spaces people can go to,” she added.
“Many people in Bristol won’t necessarily live in walking distance, especially with young children, of open spaces to run about in,” she added.
On Twitter, the video prompted – for once – a considered discussion. Most people said they thought it was ok – people need to get out and about, and the risk of transmission in an outdoor setting is much lower than indoors. Judging by the video of the scenes, most people were in family groups or couples together, rather than large crowds.
Martin Rands, who lives near the Harbourside at Cumberland Basin, said the Downs were a perfect spot. “We need to exercise where we don’t get too close to other people,” he said.
“I don’t walk round the harbour anymore, as that’s where everybody else goes! More spacing possible on the Downs. But it’s a shame that lots of people are driving there,” he added.
Kate Matheson also said it was fine. “There is a lot of space between people. It’s a nice morning and people are going out, within their local area, for some fresh air and daylight,” she said.
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“We walked to the harbour yesterday, and it was so busy – not doing that again! But driving to the Downs would give us more space,” she added.
For Bryan Goddard, among many others, the lockdown has highlighted the importance of good quality, large enough open spaces in a city like Bristol. Some places are blessed with many on their doorstep, other areas have poor quality green spaces and not enough of them.
“Surely it’s better than having to exercise in cramped city streets,” he said. “Your implication is that only the well off can enjoy open areas. If our great leader can cycle across his city, why can’t people in Bristol travel through theirs to exercise?”
This was a point echoed by Alex, in BS3, who said he thought his family would come into contact with far more people at close quarters walking to his local park, than driving to the Downs.
“It’s fine,” he said. “People are entitled to (and need) to exercise, and there is *far* less risk of contact from me driving the kids to the Downs, than there is from us walking down the 1.5m wide pavements of North Street to get to Greville Smyth park.”
The scenes on the Downs highlight one thing – just how different a lockdown in England is to other countries in Europe. During their strictest lockdowns, the Spanish and Italians have to get permission to leave their homes, and explain reasons, and trips for food shopping are limited. People are routinely challenged when out and about, and people largely stay in their homes all the time.
Ben Spencer’s view was that the small risk of increasing transmission by many people going to the Downs was not as bad as forcing everyone to stay inside – especially when tens of thousands of people in Bristol don’t have any open spaces or gardens at all.
“This is absolutely fine,” he said. “What would be the physical and mental effect if all Bristol’s population who don’t have gardens didn’t exercise outside for three months?
“I feel it is OK for a dad and his kids to play cricket far away from everyone else. Maybe a different story if it was packed and got in the way of people walking etc. I am also assuming they don’t have their own garden,” he added.
But there were some people with a slightly different view.
Catriona Cook said she preferred not to go out on a Sunday, because everyone else does. “I feel very unsafe going out on Sundays,” she said.
“Some joggers don’t keep their distance. Some joggers have to run in pairs side by side. The Downs was a mudbath on Thursday when I went. Dr. Pankhania suggested wearing a mask even outside because of the new strain,” she added.
Another of the reasons for a lockdown is not only to reduce the pressure on our hospitals, intensive care units and Accident and Emergency units because by stopping the spread of a virus that puts so many of us in hospital, but also to reduce the numbers of people who end up in hospital in regular day to day life.
For instance, the numbers killed or injured – and therefore admitted to hospital – from road traffic collisions dropped dramatically in the first lockdown, because the roads were so quiet. The closure of soft play areas, trampoline parks and shut down of team sports means fewer children and young people are taking up the doctors’ and nurses’ time dealing with sprained ankles and dislocated collar bones.
This is one of the main ideas behind the clampdown on driving to exercise in the first place. People are far more likely to be seriously hurt in a car crash if everyone is allowed to drive 30 miles from Bristol to somewhere like Brean beach to go for a walk, than three miles to Ashton Court. But where is the line? Should it be no driving at all? Or left up to people to decide for themselves, or the police to decide?
People were still off-road biking around Leigh Woods and Ashton Court yesterday, but while strolling around the Downs is hardly a dangerous sport, there is a balance, or a trade-off, between seeing still-busy roads and the inevitable crashes, and people’s own mental health and well-being.
Darren Wilson made this point on Twitter too. He saw the video and said: “So none of those people would require a trip to a&e this afternoon? All whilst a friend of ours’ Dad spent most of the night in the back of an ambulance outside A&E waiting for a bed. I just want everyone to remain safe and reduce the chances of needing a hospital visit.”