Prime Minister Boris Johnson has this evening said that from Wednesday, people in England will be allowed "unlimited outdoor exercise" as he set out the government's "roadmap" to ease lockdown restrictions – aIthough according to the letter of existing legislation, there were no such limits on exercise. He also said that people unable to work from home, such as construction or factory workers, are advised to return to work from tomorrow but to avoid public transport and to travel only "by car or even better by walking or by bicycle."
In his address, 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."
As we’ve previously pointed out here on road.cc, emergency regulations implemented in late March in England do not in fact place restrictions on the number of times people may leave their homes to exercise each day.
Under The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, “undertaking exercise either alone or with other members of the household” constitutes a “reasonable excuse” for leaving home.
Speaking ahead of that legislation being introduced in late March, Johnson said that people could “undertake one form of exercise” each day, with cycling being one example given, provided it is undertaken alone or with others with whom they live, something that has been reiterated in government guidance.
Last month, however, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) issued guidance to police forces in England in which it said that in relation to exercising more than once per day, “the only relevant consideration is whether repeated exercise on the same day can be considered a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home.”
That guidance from the CPS, issued after the original regulations had been reconfirmed after being in force for three weeks, was drawn up partly in response to concerns that some police forces had been over-prescriptive in their interpretation of the regulations.
In part, that has been caused by confusion due to the looseness of the wording of the regulations compared to what Johnson and other cabinet members have said in public.
At the end of March, for example, Michael Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr, who had asked him how long exercise should ask, “Well, obviously it depends on each individual’s fitness, but I would have thought that for most people a walk of up to an hour or a run of 30 minutes or a cycle ride, depending on their level of fitness is appropriate.”
It’s unclear whether the wording of the regulations themselves, so far as they relate to exercise, will be amended in the light of the Prime Minister’s statement this evening, but his reference to “unlimited exercise” being allowed from Wednesday should remove uncertainty about how they should be interpreted.
Regarding Johnson's references to sitting to the park in the sun, or driving to other destinations, the CPS last month said that activities "not likely to be reasonable" included "Driving for a prolonged period with only brief exercise" and "A short walk to a park bench, when the person remains seated for a much longer period."
This evening's announcement suggests that each of those is now considered by the government to be a "reasonable" excuse to leave the house and will be interpreted by nmany to do just that, exercise or not, and irrespective of the distance involved.
The reference by the Prime Minister to people being able to sit in the sun, or drive to other destinations, was greeted with dismay by tourist chiefs in Cumbria, one of the worst hit counties in England by the coronavirus.
Cumbira Tourism said: "We are shocked by the timing and short notice of tonight's announcement. We are awaiting further details but the safety of residents must come first. For now, tourism businesses in Cumbria remain closed and we urge everyone to continue to #StayHome."
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Johnson, heralded “a new golden age for cycling,” with the government underlining the importance of travelling by bike (as well as on foot) given the reduced capacity on public transport due to fewer services and social distancing, and the prospect of gridlock if people travel by car – should they have access to one at all, of course.
Yesterday, transport secretary Grant Shapps unveiled £250 million in emergency active travel funding to enable councils across England, excluding London, to put measures such as pop-up infrastructure in place to encourage cycling and walking.
Many people have returned to cycling or even taken it up for the first time since the lockdown began, whether doing so for exercise or to travel to work while avoiding public transport, including NHS key workers.
Johnson said this evening: "We said that you should work from home if you can, and only go to work if you must.
"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.
"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.
"So work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.
"And to ensure you are safe at work we have been working to establish new guidance for employers to make workplaces COVID-secure."
He added: "And when you do go to work, if possible do so by car or even better by walking or bicycle. But just as with workplaces, public transport operators will also be following COVID-secure standards."
Again, that doesn't actually change what was already in the regulations, which say that a reasonable excuse for leaving the home includes "to travel for the purposes of work or to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not reasonably possible for that person to work, or to provide those services, from the place where they are living."
While government messaging in England is now based on the key phrase "Stay alert" - introduced this weekend to widespread confusion - the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are continuing with the "Stay home" message used ever since the lockdown was introduced at the end of March.
Ahead of Friday’s bank holiday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, a number of newspapers on Thursday splashed headlines across their front pages suggesting that the lockdown was being lifted.
As a result, many people in England appeared to have assumed that tonight’s address would include a significant relaxation of restrictions, an expectation that the government has tried to dispel in the days since then.
It does seem, however, that traffic has increased in recent days and that more people have been taking to parks and other open spaces to enjoy the sunshine this weekend, possibly in anticipation of significant changes being made to the lockdown.
Johnson insisted in his address that the the lockdown had "prevented this country from being engulfed by what could have been a catastrophe," although 31,855 people in the UK have now lost their lives due to coronavirus, the second highest death toll in the world behind the United States, and the biggest in Europe.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.