Councils have been told to only close parks in “extreme cases”, following reports of people flocking to green spaces to enjoy the weekend’s warm weather despite the coronavirus lockdown.
One local authority in London closed a park after reporting thousands of visitors heading there to enjoy the sun, despite social distancing guidelines telling people to remain two metres (6.5ft) apart outside at all times.
It is one of a number of rules brought in to try and halt the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock criticised people who were sunbathing, having BBQs or enjoying picnics and warned the government could ban outdoor exercise if the advice to stay home continued to be ignored.
But he later backtracked somewhat, saying there were no “imminent” changes to the COVID-19 rules in the offing.
Under the lockdown imposed on 23 March, Britons can only leave the house for four reasons:
- To buy essential supplies such as food and medicine
- To do one form of exercise a day close to home
- To travel to work if they cannot work from home
- And for any medical need, including to donate blood or provide help to a vulnerable person
As the lockdown approaches its second week, the issue of what to do with parks and green spaces continues to provoke a fierce debate.
Many have expressed fury at those going to Britain’s parks and beaches – and called on the government and police to take more stringent measures.
But others have pointed out that many Britons do not have gardens and might live in crowded conditions, making parks and green spaces a lifeline for daily exercise and a mental health boost.
Housing and communities secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News he has spoken to councils and urged them to only close parks in “extreme cases”.
“I don’t want to see parks and open spaces closed,” he told Sky’s All Out Politics.
“I think it’s extremely important that people who are staying at home, who don’t have the benefit of a garden, who don’t live in the countryside, can get out for their daily exercise, their run or jog with members of their own household to get some fresh air and some exercise.
“Some councils over the weekend have closed parks or come close to doing so, because they felt it was becoming very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the social distancing rules because of the number of people who were there.
“I’ve spoken to some of those councils and urged them to use their powers judiciously, to be very careful to only do so in extreme cases.
“The message is also to that minority of people who have flouted the rules, who have been having picnics or congregating in groups, please respect the rules.
“Don’t spoil this for the rest of us.”
The Local Government Association said councils will be forced to shut parks as a last resort if people keep breaching social distancing rules.
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While the LGA acknowledged the outdoor spaces are a “lifeline” for many, but councils will be “reluctantly forced to close them” should measures be flouted.
Lambeth Council closed Brockwell Park in southeast London after revealing that 3,000 people, many of them sunbathing or in large groups, had visited on Saturday.
It reopened on Monday and councillor Sonia Winifred said she hoped the temporary closure ensured that the message was “crystal clear” to people about following social distancing guidelines.
In Primrose Hill, northwest London, police moved people on.
One officer in Hove on the south coast had clearly had enough – and decided to disrupt a couple of people having a barbecue on a pebble beach by filling a helmet with water and using it to extinguish the flames.
But the consensus in government is that members of the public are by and large following the guidelines.
Meanwhile, a petition expressing opposition to closing parks and instead calling for golf courses to open the public for exercise has gained more than 1,000 signatures.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, a supporter of the petition, said it was “common sense to create as much open space as possible to allow socially-distanced exercise”.
Labour MP Harriet Harman said opening up green spaces such as school playing fields was an “excellent suggestion”.
Some schools said they had already done so, but advised people to use the space for exercise only and within the Government guidance.