You can take our pubs and our shopping centres. You can wall us up behind the front door with Netflix and newsagent wine. But don’t take away our glimpse of the sky, that proscribed 30 minutes of brain-soothing, body-stretching exercise.
Judging by the experiences of Spain, Italy and France, this is the next stage for the UK. Quite how long we can put off a complete ban on personal exercise is open to question. But a concerted effort is required here because, with the weather this week forecast to reach as a high as 23C, this really could be a tipping point.
Public pressure suggests it’s coming. One of the most heartening aspects of the period of confinement has been a shared counter-commentary, the feeling, expressed often from the fringes, that this might just be a chance to reset and restart, to remake our world as a kinder, gentler place.
It remains to be seen quite how this fits with the sheer effort of will required to ensure the No 1 UK trending Twitter topic on Sunday night was #selfishpricks, a response to the suspicion too many people had given in to weakness, cabin fever and springtime muscle memory and gone out to run or walk or lie around in public space.
By Monday morning the health secretary, Matthew Hancock, had rowed back a little on the veiled threat to enforce a ban on outdoor exercise. But this in itself should be taken with a pinch of salt, at a time when nothing is off the table, no policy is fixed, and nothing that seemed extreme on Sunday night can be ruled out by Wednesday morning.
Make no mistake. When this does come, when parks and public spaces are finally closed, it will be one of the most destructive side-effects of this pandemic to date. A disaster for physical and mental health; a disaster for sport at recreational and junior levels; and a disaster for the trajectory of both the national health and its keeper, the National Health Service.
There are two issues here. Firstly, how serious is this problem really? Our cities are crowded places. Many people have no outdoor space at all. It is impossible to stay out of one another’s sight completely. No doubt there is a hardcore of the ill-informed, the antisocial and those who just won’t or can’t obey the rules. These groups should be ruthlessly policed. But most people do understand how to protect themselves.
Jogging two metres from anyone else, dodging off the pavement, being aware at all times of your distance: these are habits the average citizen is learning to keep. One person’s enraging iPhone pic of a crowded park scene is another’s intricate network of carefully maintained personal spaces. Mainly, though, the prospect of a ban on outdoor exercise must be taken on its own terms. Any decision on public governance is a balance of cost and benefits. This one would be catastrophic for so many people.
It is a mark of how perverse the situation is that the same department of health currently ordering the nation to stay inside was publishing advice in October 2019 urging us to do exactly the opposite. Public Health England’s paper states that “physical inactivity is responsible for one in six UK deaths and is estimated to cost the UK £7.4bn annually.”
Yes, you read that right: one in six deaths. Inactivity is not a neutral state. It also has a profound cost. Loss of movement and physical activity is both habit-forming, and often irrecoverable for those of advanced age. Plus there is the more immediate effect on the nation’s mental health. The same government paper concludes: “Physical activity has significant benefits for health, both physical and mental, and can help to prevent and manage over 20 chronic conditions and diseases, including … depression.”
But then, we don’t need a study to tell us this. As long ago as the European plagues of the middle ages, green space and fresh air were being prescribed as balms to melancholia. Sport, exercise, sunlight: these are a form of preventative care for many people who experience mental health issues or skate close to the edge. Removing access to these things will come with a huge hidden cost.
On a separate scale it would also close an escape hatch for those whose isolation means confinement in what might be an unsafe place. The National Domestic Abuse hotline saw a 25% increase in requests for help in the past week via website and phone. This is bigger than just sport or exercise. Humans need the freedom to escape one another now and them.
But it is also about sport and exercise, the absence of which hits young people hardest. As the government’s own report states: “There is strong evidence that regular physical activity is associated with numerous health benefits for children.” This stretches from teenagers whose physicality demands that, like dogs, they need to run around at least once a day, to those who benefit from being steered away from isolation.
Sports science suggests there are permanent physical benefits to physical exertion in your growth years. Something irrecoverable will be lost when that right to exercise is taken away. It is a cost that will be felt by some more than others. Data suggests children from low-income backgrounds are already less physically active than those from wealthier backgrounds, and three times more likely to be obese by the age of 11.
Confinement seems likely to supercharge this process, to further politicise exercise and the outdoors. If you have a garden, or space at home, or a parent with resources already engaged in curating your recreation, you will most likely find a way to continue that. For others the lockdown will mean chronic, often cramped inactivity.
What, then, is the alternative? There are plenty of mitigating alternatives the government could look at before that point is reached. Policing public spaces more aggressively is one thing. But why not attack it from a better angle? Do we really want to be a nation that bans exercise before it bans smoking and the sale of tobacco? Surely better to ban eating or drinking alcohol in public if you really want to disperse the wrong kind of crowd? At another extreme, how about making everyone wear masks or a face covering in public?
It is here that ideas of freedom and responsibility start to collide. Our social existence is built around things that restrict or funnel our access to the land around us, from street furniture, to rights of way and public spaces. There is always compromise, always managed space. How far the public is able to police its own use of it right now might just dictate how long that vital freedom can be retained.