From tonight the whole of Wales once again goes into lockdown for 17 days in what is described as a ‘firebreak’ to tackle the Covid-19 virus. People are being told to stay at home, only essential shops will remain open and all indoor and outdoor activities apart from exercising from home will be prohibited. Meanwhile, in Scotland severe restrictions on household mixing and on the operation of hotels, pubs and self catering accommodation remain in place. In England regional restrictions are being brought in under the ‘three tier’ system on an almost daily basis.
No-one should underestimate the huge challenge facing the three Governments as they stagger through the fog of conflicting scientific advice, economic data and the raw experience of their citizens trying to cope with extraordinary impacts on their lives. For those who have the job of balancing the impossible equation of lives v livelihoods, a safety first, precautionary approach is completely understandable. They are literally making life or death decisions, which is something the rest of us should be very grateful we do not have to do.
That precautionary approach, however, must recognise that all areas of our countries are far from identical. Whilst there is understandable concern about the spread of the virus in rural communities the reality is that in many areas of the countryside infection rates are very low. The data also suggests that the virus spreads most effectively between households, that pubs and restaurants are less likely to spread infection, and that properly organised outdoor activities are a very low risk. And despite the lurid headlines and dire predictions visitors to the countryside do not seem to be leaving the virus (at least) behind them when they leave. Counties like Cornwall and Dorset which were inundated with visitors in the summer saw no real impact on the number of cases at the time and their infection rates remain low.
We all understand the basic logic behind restrictions to tackle the spread of the virus, but if you run an outdoor education business in the Scottish Borders, or a shoot in West Wales, both areas with very low levels of infection, you must be asking with some reason how the restrictions that are crippling your business are actually contributing towards reducing the prevalence of the virus.
Ministers are being bombarded with advice as they make unprecedented decisions but if there is one message that we would like to cut through that barrage it is that they must consider the impact of their policies on all their citizens, not just most of them. We must, of course, stand together at this time, but there is a point at which a unified approach could start to feel like collective punishment for those whose lives are being so fundamentally impacted by policies which do not seem to be addressing any real risk in their community. It is perfectly feasible to target interventions both geographically and by activity to address the factors that are causing the spread of the virus without unnecessarily impacting on those areas and activities that are not. As we enter what is likely to be a long winter tackling the spread of Covid-19 that must be the approach that all Governments adopt.