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As warm weather brings out social distancing rebels, it may be time to open our gardens to those who don’t have them

Just as people look out for one another with their shopping, so too can they help each other stay sane by giving them somewhere to sit for a while

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 08 April 2020 15:03 BST
Police patrol parks and tell people not to sunbathe in London as sunny weather hits UK

One thing you don’t need to be an armchair epidemiologist to understand is that the current rule or convention (applied inconsistently) about not going outside in this crisis is about to collapse. We need to pre-empt this imminent failure with a more humane, and above all, sustainable approach.

No one can be expected to be cooped up 23/7 indefinitely, without any other access to the outside world bar a one-hour outdoor exercise ration plus the odd, infrequent, trip to the shops. It’s true of everyone but especially of parents now the schools are shut for the foreseeable future.

A lockdown might be the best policy epidemiologically, but there is not much point to it if it is widely defied and resented. No one understands why sitting alone or in a household group two metres, or two miles for that matter, away from others is a danger to public health. This incomprehension will turn into disobedience with every warmer day that arrives.

It feels like a sort of garden-based class division is developing. Indeed it feels very wrong to have those fortunate enough to have a little outdoor space snitching or attacking as selfish those less fortunate with screaming infants to contend with. The police have, in these strange times, occasionally shown the zealotry of a 17th-century witchfinder to naive walkers in a national park. There is a balance to be struck here, and a bit more leeway for flat dwellers without gardens.

According to the Ordnance Survey, there are 2.6 million people in the UK who don’t live within a 10-minute walk of an open green space – and the amount of space available to each Londoner is nearly half the national average, of course.

What to do? One answer is surely to make much more space available to the public so that there is vastly more room for people to go out, and less chance of dangerous crowds congregating in a few parks. It can be done. There are huge tracts of green space that are publicly and privately owned that could be opened up, compulsorily if needs be. Golf courses; race courses; National Trust lands; aristocratic estates and the like; theme/leisure parks; private and state school playing fields; woods, spinnies, meadows and even some farmlands. Yes, people might try to drive to them, but if they are policed and the distance rules are observed for car parking, then a day in the open air should be a communally safe pursuit once again.

Robert Jenrick says keep parks open if it all possible

As we invoke the spirit of the Blitz and sharing, and to avoid travelling, people could also open up their own gardens for the use of flat-dwelling neighbours who have no green space. Just as people look out for one another with their shopping, so too can they help each other stay sane by allowing them to sit in their back garden for a while, provided the usual protocols are observed.

I don’t blame the government or the police for making and enforcing the current draconian rules. They are indeed the best way to slow the spread of Covid-19 and save lives, including of those now venturing outside and ignoring the rules quite recklessly. But they just will not hold. Laws and law enforcement require consent and it is now wearing too thin. The rules need to flex and we need some fresh air.

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