Changes to coronavirus lockdown guidelines have renewed fears that an influx of visitors to the countryside could spread the virus.
Boris Johnson announced a partial easing of the lockdown in England during a televised address to the nation on Sunday 10 May.
The prime minister said: “From this Wednesday, we want to encourage people to take more and even unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise.
“You can sit in the sun in your local park, you can drive to other destinations, you can even play sports, but only with members of your own household.
“You must obey the rules on social distancing, and to enforce those rules we will increase the fines for the small minority who break them.”
Stay at home
The new guidance has met a mixed response, with some farmers and rural representatives pleading on social media for people to stay at home.
Cotswold farmer Liz Webster said visitors from outside the area already posed a health hazard.
Already last weekend we had families turn up on our farm to walk the Thames Path. Who is going to clean the gates and styles ?♀️
— Liz Webster ???????????? (@abcpoppins) May 11, 2020
Dorset farmer Justine Pike, of Downshay Farm, Swanage, said it was too soon to start relaxing travel restrictions.
Please clarify “driving to get exercise”. How far, and do you realise this means the countryside will now be swamped with visitors before it’s safe?
— Justine (@downshayfarm) May 11, 2020
Lake District National Park Authority chief executive Richard Leafe urged people not to visit Cumbria, which has one of the UK’s highest rates of the virus.
“This could be very difficult for the communities of the Lake District and Cumbria,” he said. “Please don’t rush to visit us.”
This could be very difficult for the communities of the Lake District and Cumbria. Please don’t rush to visit us. https://t.co/QleiFw7vcv
— Richard Leafe (@LakesChief) May 10, 2020
South Lakes Police said people should take a long, hard look at their conscience before visiting the national park for exercise.
“We urge you to use common sense and to continue to exercise close to your own home,” it said. “We need to break the cycle of infection.”
Before considering travelling to #Cumbria #LakeDistrict please grab a brew☕️, examine this map, and take a long hard look at your own conscience. We urge you to use common sense and to continue to exercise close to your own home. We need to break the cycle of infection #lockdown pic.twitter.com/bC5yQOMrqr
— South Lakes Police (@SouthLakesPol) May 10, 2020
Earlier, Bishop of Ripon Helen-Ann Hartley said the last thing rural communities needed was an overwhelming number of visitors.
She added: “Yes, the economy matters but the ‘countryside’ is not simply a place of recreation and retreat, it is where people live and work.”
The new guidance applies only in England – Scotland and Wales are maintaining their advice for people to stay at home unless travel is essential.
The Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) said the prime minister’s address was confusing and ambiguous – and failed to distinguish between Welsh and English changes to restrictions.
FUW president Glyn Roberts said: “There appeared to be no attempt to make it clear that the changes being announced only applied in England.
“Worse than that, the impression was given that the changes applied throughout the UK when this is simply not the case.”
Mr Roberts said the prime minister’s comment that “you can drive to other destinations” would lead people to wrongly assume they could visit Wales.
This would increase the risk of introducing the coronavirus to Welsh communities, he added.
“Our offices are dealing with members who are in the vulnerable category and are concerned that the large numbers of people coming through their farmyards and fields are placing them at risk.”
Relaxation ‘must be properly managed’
The partial relaxation of coronavirus restrictions could help revitalise the rural economy, but must be properly managed, says the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA).
The TFA has welcomed the prime minister’s statement on planned measures to relax some of the restrictions put in place by the government to control the spread of Covid-19.
With disease indicators starting to move in the right direction, TFA chief executive George Dunn said the time was right to plan the process of moving from lockdown to a new normality
But Mr Dunn warned: “This must be undertaken carefully to ensure that we do not create a new surge in disease spread.
“While it may be some time before we see the reopening of restaurants, cafés and pubs, farm-focused attractions based in the outdoors could lead the way in getting things moving again.”
With appropriate social distancing, hand-washing facilities and people management, farm attractions could be at the forefront of the recovery heading into mid-summer.
“Subject to scientific and practical advice, farm-based attractions up and down the country could provide an early opening of the hospitality sector,” said Mr Dunn.
“Farm-based attractions offer many advantages, but will require careful management to ensure that they do not become overwhelmed with too many people attending at once.
“Keeping people outside in the sunshine, while enjoying hospitality, must be the way forward as we begin to relax the current restrictions.
“We may also need to move at different speeds, with England being in a position to move before Wales, for example.
“However, I would urge governments in all parts of the UK to be working with the farming community to achieve this.”