Coronavirus: Parks urged not to closed unless it is 'impossible' to maintain social distancing

6 April 2020, 12:45

Members of the public enjoy the warm weather on Primrose Hill
Members of the public enjoy the warm weather on Primrose Hill. Picture: Getty

By Matt Drake

Parks should not be closed unless it is "impossible" to maintain social distancing in them, the government has urged councils.

Housing and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said on Monday that he had called local leaders to warn them to be "very judicious" in locking open spaces.

One London authority closed a park over the weekend after reporting thousands of visitors flocking to it to enjoy the sun and warmth breaking through.

The warmer weather meant thousands flocked to parks to take advantage of the warm weather, despite Boris Johnson pleading with the public to only use public parks for exercise.

It lead to warnings from Health Secretary Matt Hancock that outdoor exercise could be banned if people continue to flout the rules .

But there are concerns that public confidence could be lost if those in power with gardens and ample living space tell those who live in crowded conditions they cannot go to the park or exercise outdoors.

Mr Jenrick agreed he has a "lot of sympathy" with those concerns as he said he had spoken to "a number" of councils who had closed parks over the weekend.

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One London authority closed a park over the weekend after reporting thousands of visitors
One London authority closed a park over the weekend after reporting thousands of visitors. Picture: Getty

"This is their decision, but I have asked them to be very judicious in taking that step and only to do that where they feel it is impossible to maintain social distancing rules within their parks or open spaces," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I think that is what motivated them over the weekend."

Sunny, warmer-than-average conditions are set to continue this week, with a peak of around 24C (75.2F) forecast for Wednesday and Thursday in southern England, the Met Office said.

Mr Jenrick implored people to stay inside, with the potential for more good weather and the Easter weekend approaching being big temptations to breach the lockdown.

He insisted there are no "imminent plans" to impose greater restrictions after warnings that outside exercise could be banned.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said: "It would be very unfortunate if we had to do so and make it harder for people, particularly people who live in flats in towns and cities, to get the exercise they deserve."

And he suggested that measures could be relaxed before long if the "excess capacity" in NHS intensive care units can be maintained.

"If we can do that then we can look in the weeks to come to begin to very carefully... lift some of those measures," he said via a video-link that was facing connection issues.

"But an exit strategy that's sustainable will also have to be accompanied by much greater testing and tracing than we are able to do today."

One council to shutter a green space was Lambeth, which closed Brockwell Park in south-east London after saying 3,000 people, many sunbathing or in large groups, had visited on Saturday.

The park reopened on Monday and councillor Sonia Winifred said she hoped the temporary closure ensured that the message was "crystal clear" to people who flouted social distancing measures.

She said the local authority was "working hard" to keep parks open during the crisis but stressed that people must follow the rules, adding: "We will continue to monitor social distancing as far as possible during this lockdown, in co-ordination with the police."

Police moved people on in north-west London's Primrose Hill and rules were breached on the south coast too, but the consensus in government is that the public are largely obeying the rules.

But there is some public confusion over whether it is acceptable to sit down and enjoy the sunshine when once-daily exercise is condoned under the official guidelines.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, however, warned that "sunbathing is against the rules".

He warned of even tougher lockdown rules if people continue to flout social distancing rules.

For example, the government could stop people leaving their homes for exercise if people continue to break the rules, such as sunbathing in parks.

Speaking to Sky's Sophy Ridge, the Health Secretary said: "Sunbathing is against the rules that have been set out for important public health reasons.

“I wish I didn’t have to say this but I do because the whole country wants to come through this crisis.”

The Local Government Association's culture chairman, councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, warned that councils will be "reluctantly forced" to close parks if people fail to socially distance themselves.