Two weeks into Lockdown 3.0 in the United Kingdom and the rules on who should or should not be doing whatever are as clear as mud — as ever.
Last week, two friends decided to go for a walk at Foremark Reservoir in the Midlands of England some eight kilometres from their home. But the local Derbyshire Constabulary had other ideas. The pair were stopped by four police officers who issued them with £200 (Dh998) fixed penalty fines for exercising too far from home.
Under the rules that go with this latest England-wide lockdown, people are required to “stay local”. But just how far is “local”. In the eyes of Derbyshire police, eight kilometres is too far. And the pair of walkers also carried takeaway coffee cups and were dressed down by the officers who told them that having a picnic wasn’t in keeping with the spirit of the lockdown. Spirit of the lockdown? How could two takeaway coffees possibly constitute a picnic in any reading of the rules and regulations?
Naturally, the incident caught the headlines as furious Britons acted with anger at the overzealous policing. After a decade of austerity and cuts to services at local government levels up and down the UK, how on Earth did four Derbyshire officers manage to be in the one place at the same time? Or were they in breach of the spirit of the regulations that are supposed to prevent people gathering in groups?
To add insult to the legal injuries suffered by the two women, on Sunday Prime Minister Boris Johnson was photographed riding his bicycle at London’s Olympic Park — some 12 kilometres from his official residence at 10 Downing Street. Surely one rule wouldn’t be applying to him and another to those female would-be walkers at Foremark Reservoir?
After all, it would be the first time in these 10 months of restricted movements and tiered living that that a separate rule seemed to apply to Johnson’s inner sanctum of advisers and the rest. Remember how Dominic Cummings made a round trip of more than 900 kilometres at Easter to visit his parents’ home in the north of England, and then also went for another drive to Barnham Castle.
When Downing Street officials were questioned about the PM’s bike ride, they were quickly to respond that he had not broken any of the lockdown rules. Maybe so. But no sooner had the story appeared in Monday morning’s newspapers than Cressida Dick, the Chief Constable of Scotland Yard and head of the London’s 44,000-strong police force — it takes up a quarter of all spending on police in England — appeared on breakfast television to say that the rules on the lockdown needed urgent clarification. She also pointedly noted that her officers wouldn’t be issuing £200 fixed penalty notices to those out for exercise and they would instead be taking a softly, softly approach.
Derbyshire police have said the penalties issues to the two walkers have been rescinded and the force would be reviewing how it issues fines in the future. That might be good news for the pair of friends but this whole chapter is more than a storm in one of their takeaway latté cups.
Some 80,000 people have died so far as a result of coronavirus since March. A new virulent strain of Covid-19 is rampant, initially in the southeast of England, now widespread across the UK, and it has spread across the Irish Sea to the Republic of Ireland which, on Monday, reported the highest caseload of coronavirus per capital globally.
Lockdown 3.0 was imposed in the UK just after Christmas and is expected to last until the end of February — most likely until the end of March. Even so, the lockdown has failed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, with health officials estimating that at least one person in 50 has it currently across England, 1-in-30 in London.
The reality is that even though the rules are pretty similar to those in place from late March onwards and which were responsible for flattening the initial curve of the pandemic, the exceptions to the rules now mean that too many people have too many reasons to be out and about — notwithstanding the right to exercise locally.
Nurseries remain open, so too schools — leaving teachers to note that too many children are attending because too many parents and guardians are considered to be essential workers. And they point out that if teachers are indeed essential workers, they need to be offered vaccinations at the same time as other frontline workers such as homecare and medical staff.
As things stand now, Johnson says there’s no need for tighter restrictions but that people should be following the rules already in place. Labour Leader Sir Kier Starmer, who has managed to haul his party’s standing in opinion polls from the nadir of the December 2019 general election results to level pegging with Johnson’s Conservatives, says that stricter lockdown rules are needed presently.
If for no other reason than seeming to give ground to sir Kier, Johnson is sticking by the message of wearing face coverings, keeping space between people and reminding everyone to act as if they carried the virus themselves.