We're urged to stay local when we exercise, but this isn't the law - Getty
We’re urged to stay local when we exercise, but this isn’t the law – Getty

Another week, another set of rules by which we must live our lives. As a Londoner, I’ve moved from Tier 1, to Tier 2, to a national lockdown, back to Tier 2, to Tier 3, to Tier 4, and now back to another, stricter, national lockdown – all in the space of three months. How are we supposed to keep up with what’s allowed and what isn’t, particularly when it comes to travel?

Luckily, there’s the Government’s online guidance, which spells it out pretty clearly. “You must not leave your home unless you have a reasonable excuse (for example, for work or education purposes),” it says. “If you need to travel you should stay local – meaning avoiding travelling outside of your village, town or the part of a city where you live – and look to reduce the number of journeys you make overall.”

Outdoor exercise is allowed, thank heavens. This “should be done locally wherever possible, but you can travel a short distance within your area to do so if necessary (for example, to access an open space).”

Which means, as a Tottenham resident, I ought to be limiting my exercise to the rather depressing “urban green space” known as the Lordship Recreation Ground. The great outdoors it is not.  

The problem with the guidance, however, is that it’s just guidance. The actual law, which the police are there to enforce, is spelled out in the Covid legislation – and it’s subtly different. 

The latest set of rules (in force before Parliament had the chance to vote on it), the 65th set of Covid restrictions to be imposed on the British people in less than a year, is actually just a beefed up rehash of the Tier 4 legislation. This means it is a little less severe than the March lockdown (churches can stay open in England, for example – though not in Scotland) but still terribly restrictive. 

Unless we fancy a fine of £200 (for the first offence, doubling for further offences up to a maximum of £6,400), we cannot – legally – leave our homes with a “reasonable excuse”. 

tier changes october-december
tier changes october-december

As explained in the guidance, this includes work, volunteering, shopping (in one of the few places still open), education or childcare, meeting your support bubble (an option not available in March), medical or animal welfare reasons, escaping harm, compassionate reasons, communal worship, funerals, weddings, activities related to buying or selling a home, and exercise. The biggest loss is “open-air recreation”, a “reasonable excuse” under Tier 4 but not any more. You may exercise, but not, er, “recreate”. 

However, there is nothing in the legislation about travelling or “staying local”. You may, legally, travel anywhere in Britain (or, indeed, overseas) so long as you are out and about for one of the above reasons. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the coming weeks won’t bring forth tales of rural constabularies erroneously ordering non-local ramblers to return home – or even issuing fines for “breaking” the rules. Indeed, the law enforcers of Chorley, a town in Lancashire, were doing just that last weekend. 

Human rights barrister Adam Wagner patiently unpicks the rules for his Twitter followers, addressing not just travel, but important issues such as childcare (he also points out, remarkably, that the closure of schools is only guidance). He said: “Every time I have spoken to a police officer about what powers they think they are exercising, they cite a mishmash of guidance and law to me. Never accurate so far.

“Police don’t tend to sit down and carry out a careful analysis of the differences between the law and guidance and so sometimes try and enforce guidance which isn’t law.”

We’ve even seen officers try to enforce off-hand remarks from ministers. This occurred during the March lockdown, when a minister (Michael Gove if memory serves) suggested in a TV interview that one hour was a reasonable amount of time for outdoor exercise. Lo and behold, overzealous police soon started trying to impose this limit. Indeed, the misconception that it was part of the March regulations remains, with a recent BBC report wondering “whether we [will] see a return to the one-hour rule for outdoor exercise”. 

Those who believe they are being unfairly targeted would do well to (politely) explain the differences between guidance and legislation to the police. And if they insist on issuing a fine? “My suggestion is that anybody who has received such a fixed penalty notice should write immediately (within the 28 day period for payment) to the local police force which issued it and tell them they have no power to do so and ask for it to be rescinded,” said Wagner. 

The majority, I suspect, will feel a moral obligation to follow the guidance, as well as the law. But others will use their own judgement, questioning why, perhaps, a walk around Lordship Recreation Ground, in one of London’s most densely populated boroughs, is more “moral” than a solo bike ride around the uncrowded Essex countryside. 

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