THE CORONAVIRUS lockdown, while loosened, is not yet over. At the beginning of May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first steps in relaxing the restrictions on people leaving their homes, including allowing motorists to drive somewhere in order to exercise, allowing people to meet friends and family outside of their homes (with sufficient social distancing) and re-opening businesses such as golf clubs.
He also encouraged those who could not work from home to return to work where possible, and implored them to either use bike, foot or car rather than using public transport, which can only operate at a limited capacity due to social distancing rules.
“We now need to stress that anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work,” said Johnson in his address.
“And we want it to be safe for you to get to work. So you should avoid public transport if at all possible — because we must and will maintain social distancing, and capacity will therefore be limited.”
The government has also said that people from separate households are allowed to share cars if necessary, which might help people who want to avoid public transport but don’t own a car. However, it is recommended you keep the windows down to ventilate and clean the car between journeys. You are encouraged to find an alternative method of transport if possible.
This means that it is now far more permissible to go for a drive than it was in April when, as everyone will remember with a grimace, people were only allowed to leave their houses for one of four reasons (to get essential shopping, to do one form of exercise per day, for medical reasons, or for essential work purposes) or risk being fined by police. Figures show that over 14,000 fines were handed out between March 27 and May 11.
However, the public is now in outcry as reports came out that Boris Johnson’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings drove 260 miles from London to Durham in late March, during the period when lockdown restrictions were at their tightest. At the time of the trip, both he and his wife were showing symptoms of the coronavirus. The NHS advice at the time was for people to stay at home and self-isolate, should they have symptoms.
Cummings said he made the trip to his parents’ house in order to ensure that his child would be cared for if he and his wife both became too sick to provide care, and said he did not break any laws, given the exceptional circumstances. However, many people in similar situations pointed out that they followed the government advice and accused Cummings of breaking the spirit of the rules, if not the letter.
It also emerged that Cummings had made a 60-mile round trip from Durham to Barnard Castle, purportedly to test his eyesight before the trip back to London. It goes without saying that, if you think that you may be having issues with your eyesight, going for a drive is not the way to confirm your suspicions.
Two newspapers alleged that Cummings made a second trip to Durham, but he has denied these claims. In a press conference on Monday, he said he had acted “reasonably” and legally.
The Prime Minister has defended his advisor, saying that he “followed the instincts of every father.” The furore around Cummings’ actions has led one junior minister to resign and public approval of the government to plummet.
Those who were fined for breaching lockdown rules by travelling in their cars are particularly unhappy. The government has said that it will not be reassessing lockdown fines, despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying that he would “look at” the issue of people being fined for travelling to find childcare.
The rules in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
If you live in — or near a border with — Wales or Scotland, be wary. Lockdown rules differ over both borders so you may be fined if caught driving in either country without good reason.
After the Prime Minister announced the loosening of some restrictions in England at the beginning of the month, The Welsh Government’s counsel general Jeremy Miles warned English drivers with thoughts of nipping over the border for a drive.
“Our regulations do not permit people to get in their car and drive to destinations in Wales,” he emphasised, adding that Welsh police have the power to fine those caught driving in Wales without good reason.
The country’s advice for residents to stay at home is still in place, whereas Boris Johnson has now introduced a “stay alert” slogan, to a mixed reception. Last week an English family was fined for driving more than 100 miles from their home in Worcester to Porthcawl for a day at the beach. The Welsh government is due to reassess its lockdown restrictions this Friday.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was one of the critics of the new slogan. In an interview with Sky News the morning after Boris Johnson’s address, she said she didn’t understand what “stay alert” meant and that it was too early to lift the lockdown restrictions in Scotland.
“Stay at home” is still the message in Scotland — therefore, if driving in or into Scotland you may also be stopped and asked where you are driving, and fined if not able to give a sufficient reason. However, the Scottish government is due to review its restrictions tomorrow.
Northern Ireland reported no new coronavirus deaths yesterday, for the first time in almost 10 weeks. Its government has set out a five-step roadmap out of lockdown, with First Minister Arlene Foster saying that she hopes to implement the final stage by December. However, there is no timetable for the preceding steps, as there in other nations’ plans — Foster says that progression will depend on criteria being met. Progress will be reviewed every three weeks.
Similarly to England, the first stage includes small groups of people who don’t live in the same household being able to meet outside, while adhering to social distancing rules. Businesses such as garden centres will also be allowed to reopen, and the rules on exercise will be revised.
Some services, such as churches, will be allowed to open on a drive-through basis. People who are unable to work from home will be encouraged to return to work.
For now, however, the slogan is still “Stay Home, Save Lives.” So for now, going out for a non-essential drive is not recommended. Like Scotland, rules are due to be reviewed tomorrow.
The roads are still likely to be quieter than pre-lockdown, which may tempt drivers to put their foot down on emptier roads — it’s important to remember that, although there are fewer drivers there is still a large police presence on the roads, and any accident that speeding causes could take the attention of emergency services away from those struggling with coronavirus.