JANET STREET-PORTER: One of my few remaining pleasures is under threat from an army of self-appointed guardians citing public ‘safety’
I’m 74, but (providing I’m smiling, not frowning) I don’t think I look it – all thanks to walking. No Botox. No fancy cream at £100 a pot. My recipe for good health is stout boots, a fleecy hat and a warm coat. A simple daily walk. No chat. No phone.
What could be more enjoyable, whilst the news is so grim and we’re living in fear of contagion? Now, one of my few remaining pleasures is under threat from an army of self-appointed guardians citing public ‘safety’.
As a former President of Britain’s biggest walking club, The Ramblers, I’m passionate about the benefits of putting one foot in front of the other in all weathers. Walking is free, it’s empowering and the best way to deal with stress. Walk and you’ve temporarily escaped from all the annoyances of everyday life. I walk in silence, emptying my mind before Covid exerts its negative stranglehold over most of my thoughts for the rest of the day.
What I don’t wish to encounter on my restorative stroll is a pompous member of the police force wasting their time (and mine) by issuing me with a fixed penalty fine, claiming I am breaking the law, when all I have done is take a short drive to an empty bit of green space.
Walking lifts the spirits, harms no one and offers peace and a time for contemplation. Or it should do, unless you have the misfortune to reside in an area patrolled by the over-zealous Derbyshire police.
Two friends, Jessica Allen and Eliza Moore, arranged to meet for a walk at Foremark Reservoir, just five miles away from their homes. Arriving in separate cars (permitted), they found the car park was busy – not with walkers, but uniformed officers, who promptly fined both women £200 each for allegedly breaking lockdown rules by travelling away from home to exercise. They were reprimanded for holding hot drinks, which (apparently) constitute a ‘picnic’. Andrew Bridgen, their local MP, was appalled.
In fact, lockdown guidelines specify we can leave home to exercise ‘locally’ but do not specify what that means.
As for how long we can exercise – Michael Gove made a fool of himself last year when he told a reporter ‘half an hour should be enough’. None of the current Front Bench look physically equipped to issue this kind of intrusive (and ill-informed) advice.
There is no legal reason why we can’t drive a short distance to an empty place to exercise, especially if it means we are less likely to come into contact with others. As with every aspect of government Covid strategy, Boris and his Ministers have been annoyingly vague on detail. They want us to exercise because it will help us stay out of hospital and help the NHS should we have the misfortune to become infected.
The Prime Minister has been extolling the benefits of getting fit (making sure we see photos of him running with his trainer) and losing weight ever since he nearly died from Coronavirus because he was obese.
Boris realises he can’t be too specific about WHERE we can exercise because too many rules could result in every small green space in towns and cities jammed with locals. It’s better to be vague and assume sensible people will head a short distance to somewhere less busy.
And, by the way, what about cyclists? How far are they allowed to cycle to ‘exercise’? Why pick on walkers?
Two friends, Jessica Allen and Eliza Moore, arranged to meet for a walk at Foremark Reservoir, just five miles away from their homes. Arriving in separate cars (permitted), they found the car park was busy – not with walkers, but uniformed officers, who promptly fined both women £200 each for allegedly breaking lockdown rules by travelling away from home to exercise
Faced with large numbers of people walking the streets and around our parks, desperately trying to get fresh air and escape working from home and home schooling, the police have appointed themselves exercise monitors, taping up park benches, questioning people daring to walk around in a less than purposeful manner and even stopping people at stations asking why they are travelling on a train.
The crime rates for burglary have fallen during lockdown. With most people working from home, city centres are empty so there is less petty thieving and bag-snatching. Speed cameras profitably take care of all the motorists falling foul of the limits because there is no traffic.
As a result, the police have invented new tasks for themselves – desecrating parks and seafronts with environmentally unfriendly plastic tape and laminated signs telling us to stay away. All a complete waste of time – time which would be better spent breaking up large gangs of youths gathering at night, preventing stabbings and monitoring exactly who is lurking around takeaways for hours on end.
Meanwhile, heavily criticised for the lacklustre start to the vaccine roll-out, Boris hastily made another of his catastrophic promises – declaring that within weeks, everyone in the UK would be able to access a vaccination point within ten miles of their homes.
Anyone living in a remote rural area- the North Yorkshire Moors, the Lake District, parts of Cornwall, Norfolk, the Scottish Borders and Snowdonia must have laughed out loud.
In many parts of the countryside outside the National Parks, you need to drive five miles to a decent supermarket. Soon, I expect police vans will be monitoring arrivals in the car park of my local Morrisons or Tesco to make sure every journey involved an ‘essential’ shop, not just the daily paper, a packet of crisps and a scratchcard.
The police say they are adopting a ‘four E’ strategy to ensure that the public follow the rules. Engage with rule-breakers, Explain the restrictions, Encourage us to change our behaviour, and if we decline, Enforcement (penalities) follow. But every force in the UK has interpreted the government guidelines in their own way, some adopting a very heavy-handed approach.
Derbyshire police were widely criticised during the first lockdown when they released drone footage of walkers in the Peak District National park, a clear infringement of civil liberties. Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court justice, said it was ‘disgraceful’ and ‘shamed our policing traditions’.
So far, over 32,000 fines have been issued for breaking restrictions in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Thousands of cases have been chucked out by Magistrates who say that police are misinterpreting the law.
Whilst infections are soaring from the latest variant of Covid, the greatest number continue to be focused on the 20-30 year olds. Yes, the generation who were out partying over New Year, the people we saw hanging around streets outsides pubs and bars in the run up to Christmas. These are not the majority of the people I see walking every day, who tend to be sensible anorak wearers. People with dogs, mums (and dads) with pushchairs and small children.
A lot of bilge gets written about ‘community’ – but the one community I am proud to be a member of are the people who walk. But woe betide us if we wheeze and fall, because now the police have kindly made it impossible to sit down on a bench and get our breath back.
Criminalising walking. Have these zealots nothing better to do?