The government has changed their advice from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’. The original message was clear and straightforward; the new one is meaningless. Even ‘Get the Pandemic Done’ would have been better, although just as ambiguous as the original vote-winning Brexit slogan.
There are some big, significant changes in the instructions we’re now required to follow. Most people are expected to return to work. We can go out for ‘exercise’ for as long as we like and as many times as we want to, and we can drive to anywhere we want to for our ‘exercise’ as long as it’s within a day’s return journey. Sunbathing and picnics are permitted too.
Overall though, the message is confused, and the variations between the different UK nations potentially problematic – are you expected to return to work if you live in Wales and work in England, for example? And how do you go back to work if the kids are still off school? The guidance about meeting friends and family is confusing too. Now, you can meet outdoors, if you maintain a two-metre distance – but only in public, not in your own garden. But you’ve always been able to chat to complete strangers while out for your hour’s exercise, with acceptable social distancing, conversations weren’t banned. The message now seems to be that arrangements that previously applied to complete strangers you met randomly now apply to friends you meet deliberately. Other bits of the new advice seem entirely illogical too, and don’t fit with the scientific logic that’s supposed to drive it. It’s OK to go to the seaside for the day, where you have no choice but to mingle with crowds of others there. But you can’t go to a holiday cottage where you can easily isolate your household and needn’t come into contact with anyone. This isn’t a clear ‘road map’ to recovery. It’s a badly drawn treasure map where x marks the spot, but the dotted line to get to it winds through unknown territory on a vague and blurry route.
While the easing (or in effect, ending) of lockdown might be a big relief for many, it’s potentially bad news for seaside resorts such as Hastings. Lockdown here has worked pretty well – car parks in town have remained empty, leaving the seafront available for local people to exercise, making it easy to maintain proper social distancing. COVID-19 has not hit Hastings hard, so far. Figures released on May 7th showed Hastings with the second lowest rate of recorded COVID-19 infections for any local authority area in the country, with 44 cases (47.4 per 100,000 population).
With the lockdown relaxed, that could well change. An influx of visitors again allowed to spend a day by the seaside, and desperate to get out of their homes, could see big numbers of tourists back on the seafront, making social distancing very difficult. The police simply won’t have the resources to enforce social distancing for that many people. So local people, and indeed the visitors themselves, will be exposed to a much greater risk of infection.
Some local businesses will benefit, for example food shops selling sandwiches and picnic foods, and takeaway food shops and kiosks. But overall, the economic benefits to the town will be minimal, with most shops, all cafes, pubs and bars, and tourist attractions, remaining closed. It would also place additional strains on council services such as street cleaning, exposing those who have to clean up after the tourists and their abandoned takeaway and picnic packaging to greater risk of infection too. So far, councils have not been compensated to anywhere near the level needed to replace lost income, let alone additional costs such as these.
There’s a big risk in releasing lockdown so dramatically all in one go, and the consequences are unclear. It is true that the virus will transmit less easily outdoors, especially now UV levels in sunlight are increasing significantly as we approach the summer equinox. Viruses, and RNA viruses such as Coronavirus in particular, are susceptible to UV in sunlight, reducing their survival times in the environment dramatically. But whether this is sufficient to prevent infection levels rising, where people are crowded together in outdoor spaces, remains to be seen. Let’s hope we’re right to assume that the risk of infection outdoors in summer really is minimal. It’s just a pity that seaside resorts such as Hastings, often the most deprived communities in the country, will be the test beds where we’ll find this out.