Leave the sunbathers and picnickers alone

For those living in cramped flats, parks are a lifeline.

Michael Fitzpatrick


The hectoring tone adopted by health secretary Matt Hancock over people leaving their homes for exercise reveals a lack of respect for people’s common sense and risks undermining the high level of popular compliance with measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus infection.

As I write this, I have just returned from a Sunday afternoon jog in Finsbury Park, near where I live. There were more runners than usual, perhaps because of the closure of gyms and because many people are struggling with the enforced idleness of the coronavirus lockdown. I was struck how people were conscientiously – almost punctiliously – observing social-distancing guidelines. A few teenagers were behaving badly, but what’s new about that?

I arrived home to hear Hancock addressing the nation in the tones of a school headmaster telling off an assembly of naughty children. He threatened that if people continued to leave home in significant numbers, they would be compelled to remain indoors (though he did not indicate how compulsion would be enforced – more drones perhaps?).

As several commentators have observed, staying at home is no great inconvenience for people with direct access to the countryside or a garden. But what about people who live in cramped flats, with children and older relatives? Many people in the vicinity of Finsbury Park live in overcrowded, multigenerational households. They do not have en-suite bathroom facilities enabling self-isolation. The risk of transmitting a viral illness is much greater for them indoors than in a public park.

SARS-Cov-2 is not an airborne virus (like measles or chickenpox), but is transmitted by droplets (like flu). The concept that ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’ is well established in British society: every child is taught not to cough or sneeze in other people’s faces. The risk of transmitting the coronavirus outdoors is low as long as social distancing is observed. By now, everybody knows that two metres is the recommended distance and this is widely observed.

The risk of passing the coronavirus on to another person by running or walking past them in the street or in a park or on a beach is negligible. This is true even if they come nearer than the somewhat arbitrary two-metre distance, as long as they are not coughing or spluttering directly at another person. So what is the problem with people walking, running, even sunbathing or having a picnic with their household members in the park?

Chief nurse Ruth May issued an emotional appeal last week for people to stay at home over the weekend as a gesture of respect for two nurses who sadly died from Covid-19. A relatively high death rate among healthcare workers was a notable feature of the SARS epidemic of 2003, and it has been apparent again in the coronavirus crisis in China and Italy. It is likely that these nurses and doctors were exposed to very ill patients in hospital, carrying a high viral load. Inadequacies of personal protective equipment and infection control procedures may have been contributory factors. It is very unlikely that these nurses – or their patients – became infected in a park (not least because most patients with Covid-19 are elderly, or have chronic medical conditions).

Though some entrances to Finsbury Park have been closed, and car parking has been suspended, the park itself remains open. Victoria Park, between Tower Hamlets and Hackney, has been closed because some people were judged by the police to be in violation of social-distancing rules. This means that thousands of people who live in flats surrounding the park are obliged to walk or run around the streets, dragging their children and dogs along with them. It is ironic that access to these parks, established by the Victorians to provide access to fresh air and green fields for the poor people of East London, is now being denied to the local population.

Though Finsbury Park is still accessible on foot, many vulnerable adults and children are now excluded from the park. People with learning and physical disabilities are often brought to the park by their support workers, usually by car because of safety concerns and their limited mobility. But Pedal Power, a popular weekly cycling group for people with all levels of cycling ability, is now suspended, and Haringey Council has closed all day centres for the duration of the pandemic.

Martin Hewitt, parent of an adult son with autism and severe learning disabilities, and a local campaigner for adult social-care services, says that people like his son are ‘now confined to their homes, which is unhealthy for them, their family carers and support workers’.

Public compliance with social distancing has been good up to now because people have understood and accepted the rationale for drastic restrictions on their social and economic activities. There is understandably a high level of public anxiety about the prospect of the next few months. This is an unprecedented global medical, social and economic crisis. There remain many unanswered questions about the virus and the disease it causes and a high level of uncertainty about the likely scale and duration of the pandemic. Resorting to ill-considered coercive measures is likely to damage both public confidence in the government’s strategy and compliance with a policy that, for many, simply does not make sense.

Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP.

Picture by: Getty.

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Michael Byrne

8th April 2020 at 1:52 pm

Totally sensible article. It does people and their immune systems no good at all being locked in 24/7, the people out were being perfectly sensible many enjoying a park as they live in flats the whole point the park was built initially. If you sit on a park bench just dont touch you nose, mouth or eyes and wash your hands when you go in. All viruses are the same like this, but I never see people observing these measures when other viruses are circulating in society in fact most people couldnt give a hoot. Maybe we should all stay in forever and never go out or see parks again? After all if you want to be so cautious dont move at all. Hate to inform people viruses will still be around long after this lockdown has ended, as they were before we even set foot on it. Life isnt risk free and it never will be, but i dont see evidence people are flauting rules and putting others severely at risk, they are observing the guidelines, they are far more likely to catch something indoors in crowds and supermarkets (nobody is calling gor them to be closed) than sitting on a green patch with nobody around them.

Marvin Jones

7th April 2020 at 11:33 am

GP EH? When a call is answered by 111 from someone complaining of a persistent long standing cough, temperature and body pains, when asked if they have been out in public and have they been in contact with people, and they admit that they have been sun bathing the whole w/end in a park full of people. Should they be told that they need to be left alone, go to bed, this is self inflicted, handle it.

alan smithee

7th April 2020 at 7:31 am

Spiked yet again promoting the ‘I’m all right Jack’ culture without any thought of others that would get infected. If Spiked were a rag it would have gone by now. Oh, hang on…

Danny Rees

7th April 2020 at 1:54 am

Easy way to get people to leave them alone. Just say they’re Muslim and people will be too scared of being called waycist and Islamophobicists to challenge them.

Have I done this one before?

Dodgy Geezer

6th April 2020 at 9:15 pm

It is worth reminding people how this virus spreads.

If you are infected (and you may be unaware that you are) when you breathe out you expell viral particles. To avoid this people are asked to keep 6ft apart.

But this is not all. Those viral particals fall all around you, ending up on your hands and anything you touch. They remain viable for a varying time, perhaps several hours. During that time, if someone touches what you have touched, or sits where you have day, they may get infected. To avoid this people are asked NOT to congregate in places where others may also wait, like park benches, and to wash hands frequently.

This is the reason why groups of people remaining in one place, even if 6ft away from other people, pose an increased risk and may be asked to move on…

alan smithee

7th April 2020 at 7:28 am


Jonathan Yonge

6th April 2020 at 7:25 pm

5,000 – 10,000 ? Pah !
Small price to pay for freedom of – well – anything actually….

Including (but not limited to) Brendan O’ Neill’s enjoyment of Hyde Park

James Knight

6th April 2020 at 6:06 pm

Wait until we have a stifling summer. People locked down in high rise flats that the authorities helpfully covered with cladding to reduce CO2 emissions. You are out of a job, behind on your rent, universal credit has cocked up your claim and kids are screaming.

I predict a riot.

Jim Lawrie

6th April 2020 at 6:00 pm

Sunbathing and picnicking mean people have taken ownership of the ground for 2 metres around them, thus reducing the already limited and under pressure space available for walking.

Jim Lawrie

6th April 2020 at 5:48 pm

The point of practicing social distancing it to make it a habit, so that we do it automatically with everyone, and thus ensure the vulnerable are exposed. No exceptions, or it doesn’t work.
I’ve noticed quite a few older and less mobile people out today.

Ven Oods

6th April 2020 at 5:37 pm

Many GPs seem to be lamenting the current lockdown guidelines.
It would also be prudent not to have a raging toothache or infected gums at present, since most dental surgeons have been warned off, due to the required proximity to patient.

Jim Lawrie

6th April 2020 at 5:24 pm

Other measures are available to the police, such as spot fines, and detention for persistent offenders. But there would likely be cries of racism, sexism and Islamophobia if they used them.

steven brook

6th April 2020 at 4:35 pm

It’s time to actually lock people in their homes, perhaps with a cross on the door to indicate that they are probably infected/unclean. We need extreme measures, if only one OAP is saved then everything else including wrecking the economy will have been worth it.


6th April 2020 at 6:31 pm

Surely a crescent would be more appropriate given the present demographic trajectory of British society.

Jimbob McGinty

6th April 2020 at 11:19 pm

on that basis ZP i think a toilet would be appropriate

Jonathan Yonge

6th April 2020 at 2:45 pm

So reassuring to read something by a GP.
Why isn’t Michael Fitzpatrick health secretary ? He knows loads of things about the virus like how it is spread, when I thought this was not known.
He must do research in his spare time, when not writing articles for popular websites !!

I am a bit puzzled why he doesn’t have any suggestions of his own to make, and sticks to criticism.
Still, he is obviously a very clever man. I feel sure he will enter politics soon, he can do many things at once.

Jim Lawrie

6th April 2020 at 5:23 pm

He told us how a virus spreads. Something that he learned 50 years ago. Don’t be such an ignoramus.

dysen aristotle

6th April 2020 at 2:40 pm

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6th April 2020 at 12:56 pm

Health Secretary Hancock oozes condescension every time he speaks. If he treated us as adults instead of lecturing us like little children then maybe we would listen to what he says. In any case, for a wealthy man like him to lecture those less fortunate about whether they are allowed to leave their cramped living quarters is the height of hypocrisy. All this vain lecturing is no more than an attempt to divert attention from his own failures and the failure of his government to take adequate precautions in good time to defeat this virus. We are all reaping the consequences of Tory incompetence in this matter and many people will die unnecessarily of it.

Pauline May

6th April 2020 at 3:32 pm

But I don’t think any political party would have handled this any better. They all seem to be groping in the dark; the blind leading the blind.


6th April 2020 at 3:41 pm

You are probably right.

Linda Payne

6th April 2020 at 12:52 pm

Where I live there are lots of places to walk and I think it is crucial to keep parks open especially in built up areas such as Finsbury Park; In Dartford the park is still open and hardly anyone was there at 11am, we were approached (at a distance) by a couple of God botherers but that was it, keep the parks open


6th April 2020 at 12:53 pm

‘God botherers’ — How dare anyone not believe that the cosmos made itself! How dare anyone contradict my sacred beliefs! There is nothing worse than a self-righteous, intolerant atheist…


6th April 2020 at 3:13 pm

‘There is nothing worse than a self-righteous, intolerant atheist…’

Suicide bomber?

Pauline May

6th April 2020 at 3:33 pm

DG, I think Zenobia is being sarcastic.


6th April 2020 at 3:38 pm

If Zenobia was being sarcastic, then I apologise.

Mor Vir

6th April 2020 at 3:57 pm

Maybe the cosmos always existed. Causality applies between events within the cosmos, not to the cosmos as a whole, thus it is an error to assume that the cosmos must have any cause.

There is no contradiction in the idea that the cosmos in some form always existed. Christians claim that God always existed, so they admit that the concept that something always existed is coherent.

Likewise purpose exists within the cosmos but the cosmos itself has no purpose, and no God is required on that count.

The alternative is that God created the cosmos out of nothing, but as the old adage goes, nothing comes from nothing.

So Christians picture God as a great Gandalf who magics the cosmos into existence with a wave of his wand or a verbal spell, “let it be”. It is not a serious explanation of the cosmos, it is a prehistorical creation myth that would be laughable if some people did not still take it so seriously.

Yes it is good that we live in a tolerant, secular culture where we can openly discuss and debate these matters.

I am surprised that you manage to square your support for transgenderism with what the Bible says on the matter. Have you read it?


6th April 2020 at 6:35 pm

MOR VIR — If the cosmos is eternal then you have created an infinite causal regression and, simultaneously, an infinite causal progression and extension in infinite directions to infinity, thereby destroying causality and the possibility of knowledge. If there is no limit to the cosmos then there can be no terminus to explanation. We clearly are able to explain certain phenomena through recourse to physical laws and this would to me suggest that there are clear limits to the extent of the universe as a finite, intelligible entity.

Mor Vir

6th April 2020 at 7:36 pm

There is nothing contradictory about an infinite causal regression and progression. It is a coherent narrative just as numbers are infinite. 1 cause, 2 causes, 3, add as many as you like without contradiction. Causality would hardly be destroyed, it would established in its eternity. Indeed there would be no ultimate terminus to explain and that is not a problem. That we are able to understand phenomena by cause and effect in no way suggests that the cosmos is a finite intelligible entity. I will pick up on the latter point as the others are obviously false.

Our understanding allows us to potentially understand any phenomena, that does not imply that we must be able to actually understand all phenomena. What may be potentially accomplished in any of its parts may not necessarily be potentially accomplished in its whole. I could walk any 20 miles in a day but that does not mean that I could walk all stretches of 20 miles in a day. The possibility of the parts does not necessarily imply the possibility of the whole.

Thus an infinite chain of causality is not incompatible with our ability to understand phenomena by causality any more than our inability to walk the entire earth an infinite number of times is incompatible with our ability to walk the earth. That you cannot do something an infinite number of times does not imply that you cannot do it at all. Thus neither is your inability to understand infinite phenomena incompatible with your ability to understand any phenomena.

‘Any’ is not the same as ‘all’. It is the sophism of the parts and the whole, to coin a phrase. One final illustration, you could eat any burger in the store, that does not imply that you could eat them all. Neither does your inability to eat them all contradict your ability to eat any of them. Thus neither does your inability to understand all phenomena, an infinite chain of phenomena, contradict your ability to understand any of them.


6th April 2020 at 8:12 pm

MOR VIR — Then how do you explain the fact that the cosmos exists at all? Why is there something and not nothing?


6th April 2020 at 8:16 pm

MOR VIR — Also, how would you set about proving that the comos is infinite? I don’t think you can prove that, not even in principle. You have to prove that, ceteris paribus, the cosmos MUST be infinite in extension, regression and progression – and infinite in time. The God hypothesis is by far the simplest explanation for the existence of the cosmos.

Mor Vir

6th April 2020 at 8:41 pm

It may be that there is no ‘reason’ why there is anything rather than nothing. It may be that it just is. There is no contradiction in that. It is merely an assumption that the cosmos as a whole must have a ‘reason’. That is not an assumption that can be demonstrated.

Likewise it is an indemonstrable assumption that we ‘must’ be able to know of some such reason – there may simply be none to know.

By ‘reason’ we usually mean an efficient cause, ie. a cause in the ordinary sense, or a final cause, ie. some purpose why something is done (by the living). Both of those concepts apply to events within the cosmos, not to the cosmos as a whole.

Again it is a sophism of the parts and the whole; there is a reason for the parts, therefore the whole must have a reason; that does not follow. What may be said of the parts may not necessarily be said of the whole.

Causality is a relation between the parts within the whole, that does not mean that the whole must have any relation to anything else, or that there must be anything else for it to have a relation to. The cosmos may be all that there is – and it may be that it simply is.

Just as Christians say that God simply is, and always was. He has no cause, no reason. Nothing beyond himself that explains him or gives him purpose. Clearly they admit that there is nothing contradictory about such a being. It may be that what Christians say about God is actually true about the cosmos.

In that sense, you could call the cosmos God but it would just be a name. The cosmos is thus eternal, self-sufficient, it has no reason or cause beyond itself and neither does it need any. The cosmos, the All, is itself that God to which the Christians alluded.

Which is not to say that it is sentient or that it prescribes morality, judges us or any of that. It just is, and all within it, just is. We just are. Nothing ultimately has any reason or purpose, it is just coming to be and passing away through an eternal process of causality. The eternal self-evolution of the cosmos. We find and invent our own ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ within that cosmos, as one with it.

Mor Vir

6th April 2020 at 8:55 pm

As a part of the cosmos, we are God, and our lives need no reason, no ultimate ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ any more than God does. We simply are, just as God simply is.


6th April 2020 at 8:21 pm

MOR VIR — I don’t think ‘any’ and ‘all’ are the same. Please note that saying the cosmos is infinite (as I’ve described it above) is not the same as proving it. I want you to show me how you might prove that, at least in principle.

Mor Vir

6th April 2020 at 9:40 pm

Nothing comes from nothing? And causality implies an infinite chain of causes, as there can be no initial cause that has no further cause.

To say that the cosmos did not always exist and that it was created by God out of nothing, is magical thinking. Unspecified magic is impossible to disprove, just as one could not disprove that the room is fully of fairies that cannot be detected by science.

It would be a matter of the impossibility of proving what is said in the first place to be unprovable. Which is a nonsense demand. Anything cannot be disproved, on the basis that it is that which cannot be disproved. But that is the realm of mythology, goblins, fairies, unicorns.

Like, how do we know that an invisible unicorn, that cannot be detected by science, imperceptibly has its horn in our mouths? What is said to be beyond proof cannot be proved. That is why people liken God to a sky Fairy, because it is on that level.

The sensible thing is to just accept that we know what we know, and to stick with that. Otherwise we are off with the fairies. Religion is off with the fairies.

All modern physics is based on non-creation models, be it the big bang or non-standard model theories. Frankly I do not have the maths to evaluate scientific theories and I suspect that no one on this forum does.

So it is best to stick with common sense. As far we personally know, causality implies an infinite chain of causes, as there can be no initial cause that has no further cause. Moreover, nothing comes from nothing. Without fairies, religion, that is all that we can know. Beyond that, we are off with the fairies.

So we can personally prove nothing either way, but atheism is the normal common sense attitude.

Mor Vir

6th April 2020 at 10:30 pm

So, we cannot absolutely prove that causality is not an infinite, eternal chain, even though its concept implies that it is, any more than we can prove that fairies do not exist. It is possible that some magical being created the cosmos out of nothing – in the same way that, we may assume that everything today has a cause, that X happened because of Y but maybe not.

We may assume that if a cup is on a table, it is there because someone put it there, but it may be that a fairy put it there. One cannot disprove that a fairy put it there. Even if we found out that someone put it there, a fairy may have moved it and then put it back.

Just as we assume natural causality, even though we cannot disprove that fairies exist, even so we assume that causality is an infinite, eternal chain even though we cannot disprove that some magical being created the cosmos. In either case, we maintain causality and not improvable magical beings, be they fairies or God.

God is totally on the level of fairies. Natural causes imply an infinite chain, and it is magic, be it fairies or some other improvable magical being to say otherwise.

So we prove the eternity of the cosmos by causality, with the proviso that we cannot disprove magical beings that are said to be improvable, be they fairies or God. Likely that actually is a sufficient proof and the demand for proof of the non-existence of God or fairies is just nonsense.

Mor Vir

8th April 2020 at 5:02 pm

That last post contains a typo in the first sentence that I have corrected as follows.

So, we cannot absolutely prove that causality IS an infinite, eternal chain, even though its concept implies that it is, any more than we can prove that fairies do not exist…

So we prove the eternity of the cosmos by causality, with the proviso that we cannot disprove magical beings that are said to be improvable, be they fairies or God. Likely that actually is a sufficient proof and the demand for proof of the non-existence of God or fairies is just nonsense.

Mark Lambert

6th April 2020 at 12:37 pm

Last Friday, the rule of “go out for a form of exercise” was still in place, and I doubt many were considering that during that exercise, the person, or couple, couldn’t sit down for a rest.

Come Sunday, in a Facebook group, there were people who wanted such civilians shot or killed in some way. Outside of the craziness of that, why had people suddenly decided that sitting down was against the rules? Hancock had never said it. It’s not in any guidelines. It seemed to be because the police had decided so.

The press conference was weird. A journalist asked Hancock about the sitting down, even for five minutes during an exercise session. He couldn’t answer, perhaps because he realised it is ridiculous to enforce it, so he handed it over to the Chief Medical Officer who pretty much said nothing of worth.

Maybe I have this wrong, but I was certain that the advice given out on Friday, which was termed as “don’t go out” was aimed at the large gatherings, friends meeting up, people clogging beauty spots etc, and not an individual or couple having a sit down.

And then yes, how Hancock approached it on Sunday morning was a stern telling off of everyone, or at least that’s how it came across. Maybe by the afternoon he had realised that, so said they had no plans to do a further lock down.

This part of it is not going down well, especially the police adding their own non-written, never-said additions to the government advice.

Mark Houghton

6th April 2020 at 12:58 pm

There are a lot of people out there – ordinary people, police, politians, media – interpreting the rules and going beyond it to suggest what we ‘should’ be doing. Perhaps they should STFU?

Gareth Edward KING

6th April 2020 at 12:30 pm

Dr. Fitzpatrick along with Don Milligan published a full-on, no-nonsense book in the 1990s about the HIV-AIDS ‘crisis’ which caused an enormous reaction because it made the simple point that ‘no AIDS is not a disease that affects ‘everyone’ so let’s just stop panicking’. The same approach should be taken here with covid-19, it is highly restricted in terms of mortality rates, that should be so clear with the 4,000 deaths reported in the UK and with the 11,700 deaths in Spain. In the latter case, the whole country is closed down i.e. under curfew conditions until ‘at least’ April 26th but, as with Italy, it is Madrid and Catalonia which have suffered the brunt of cases: total population c. 13m. In London at least parks are at least ostensibly open. This is not the case in Madrid a city of 3.1million people. The authorities have over zealously closed off access to the Manzanares river, the Retiro, Parque del Oeste, even where I live in La Latina, the local park, which has exercising facilities especially for young men, and areas for kids to be able to play on has been meanly closed off with tape. In some parts of Madrid, e.g. Lavapiés population density is c. 260 people/km2. I noticed last night the certain disdain being shown towards the (now) ritualistic clapping at 8PM. People are tiring of being cooped up all day and with the gross uncertainty that comes with having no regular income. Schools are now to be closed till late May. It’s a reaction totally out of proportion to the threat being posed by this virus for MOST people.

Mark Houghton

6th April 2020 at 12:22 pm

The idea that by sitting down on the grass in a public space and keeping a good distance from other people is somehow wrong and will kill people or destroy the NHS is scaremongering of the very worst kind. It shows just how authoritarian some sectors of government and the police can be. It is unecessary. If the state is really worried then I’d suggest that rather than hassling people having a picnic they force supermarkets and other employers to give all their staff face masks or else. That would be far more useful and would save far more lives.

Catharine Knowles

6th April 2020 at 12:10 pm

I am one of those for whom the government’s policy makes very little sense. However, up to when Mr Hancock self-isolated, I had at least a little respect for his efforts to deal with a difficult situation. Since he came out of isolation, he has shown himself to be a hectoring bureaucrat issuing inane warnings like “stay at home, or people will die”, or ridiculous threats as he did last night. Has the British people come to this so quickly, accepting the removal of most of our freedoms at a stroke, and apparently happy to be threatened like naughty children with the removal of more by this average man whose new found absolute power has clearly gone to his head?


6th April 2020 at 6:36 pm

Hancock is a bourgeois functionary, not a leader. There are no leaders, let alone heroes, in our culture.

James Conner

6th April 2020 at 11:56 am

I was thinking that the way the police are enforcing the current coronavirus guidelines might jeapordise the public’s respect for the them, but then I remembered… the public don’t have any respect for the police anyway.

Geoff W

6th April 2020 at 11:40 am

Some very true observations here. These social distancing rules are being approached in a very heavy, cack-handed manner. Effectively, the state/Hancock are putting us all under house arrest. From my own observations the vast majority are observing the social distancing rules but like elsewhere there are those who don’t have access to a garden or cannot easily access the countryside.

These rules need to be rethought quickly because continuance of the current approach will undermine both compliance with the rules in the longer run and trust in the police. They will also damage the image of the government.

Geoff W

6th April 2020 at 12:05 pm

As a rider to the above, people must also treat this virus seriously. It CAN make you very sick no matter what age you are or the state of your health.

It isn’t a game and cannot be treated as such.

Jonathan Marshall

6th April 2020 at 12:23 pm

I think most people are treating it seriously – there will always be idiots who don’t, but sunbathing or picnicking in a park yards away from anyone else is not a breach of “social distancing”.
Headmaster Hancock’s threats (“If the guilty boys do not own up the whole school will be punished!”) will only serve to turn people against these restrictions.
I happen to know someone who lives in a town, an upstairs flat with only Velux windows – how is she supposed to cope with what amounts to “confinement to cell” if she can’t get out and relax in a nearby park?

Jim Lawrie

6th April 2020 at 5:50 pm

“These rules need to be rethought quickly ” what do you mean by that?

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