by Tim Bonner

Yesterday the Prime Minister, having recovered from his own encounter with the COVID-19 virus, very carefully began a discussion about a phased lifting of lockdown restrictions. He announced that the country was past the peak of the epidemic and that the pressing issue now is how we can continue to suppress the disease and at the same time restart the economy. To that end he announced that the Government would be publishing a plan next week which he described as a road map out of the epidemic, although the timing of each and every step will be governed by data and scientific advice. 

The countryside faces specific challenges as restrictions start to be eased. The Alliance is working to ensure that the interests of rural communities are not forgotten, but the first challenge we must face is our own understandable concerns about the spread of the virus. As the disease started to take hold there were a number of examples of gatherings at rural 'honeypots' and the movement of people from urban areas to holiday homes in the countryside which rightly raised concerns about the disease being spread to remote communities and scarce healthcare provision being overwhelmed. Now that the peak of the disease has apparently passed, however, addressing the devastating economic impact of the lockdown on rural businesses - especially in the tourism sector - must become a priority. It looks unlikely that international holiday destinations will be on many people's agenda this year which creates an opportunity for British holiday businesses. It is therefore critical that the Government has a clear plan to ease restrictions on travel which allows the reopening of hotels and other holiday accommodation. It is also vital the rural community understands that when the scientific advice states restrictions can safely be lifted, that we must be ready to welcome people into the countryside again.

Within the countryside there are also a range of activities that bring economic, environmental and social benefits that should be allowed to restart with relevant precautions in place as soon as the science allows. Our colleagues at the Angling Trust have published a document outlining how recreational fishing could be allowed to restart as soon as restrictions start to be eased. Fishing has the advantage of being a fairly solitary activity, but other sports from racing to cricket are also developing plans. The Alliance will be putting the case to Ministers for the progressive relaxation of restrictions on wildlife management activities like stalking and pigeon control as controls are eased, and - if restrictions on movement and social distancing allow - for game shooting and hunting to start later in the year. 

So much is still uncertain that it is quite impossible to set timescales or make demands, nor should we even consider pushing for such activities to be able to take place in isolation, but they make such a vital contribution to so many rural communities that we must ensure they are not forgotten. It looks unlikely that the world will return to its pre-Covid state any time soon, if indeed it ever does, but there are many important parts of our lives which we hopefully will be able to reinstate. After the months of lockdown, the simple pleasures of a trout rising to fly, a mountain climbed, a fence jumped or a bird for the pot will be all the greater. 

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