Experts have warned banning outdoor exercise in an attempt to combat the coronavirus outbreak would have “serious detrimental effects”.
Boris Johnson has enforced draconian measures that only allow Britons to venture out of their home for “very limited purposes”, like shopping for essentials or exercising.
The prime minister, who is battling the coronavirus himself, has kept parks open to help the public stay fit during the lockdown.
With the weather warming up, government officials are concerned people are interpreting the open parks as a green light for picnics, BBQs and get-togethers.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said he is reluctant to ban outdoor exercise due to its physical and mental benefits but has not ruled out “further action” if the small minority of Britons continue to “break the rules”.
One expert has warned banning outdoor exercise could make coronavirus complications worse, while others are calling for tougher enforcements for those who flout the rules.
Early research suggests the coronavirus is mild in four out of five cases, however, it can trigger a respiratory disease called COVID-19.
The coronavirus is thought to have emerged at a seafood and live animal market in the Chinese city Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, at the end of last year.
It has since spread into more than 180 countries across every inhabited continent.
Latest coronavirus news, updates and advice
Since the outbreak was identified, more than 1.2 million cases have been confirmed, of whom over 270,000 have “recovered”, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Incidences have been plateauing in China since the end of February, and the US and Europe are now the worst-hit areas.
The UK has had more than 48,400 confirmed cases and over 4,900 deaths.
Coronavirus: Government will ‘have to take action’ if people flout the rules
While outdoor exercise is encouraged for now, officials have stressed parks are not open for sunbathing or relaxing.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Hancock said: “The more people go out from home, the more the virus spreads.
“We’ve said it’s okay to go out to exercise because the physical and mental health benefits are really important.
“I don’t want to take away exercise as a reason to leave home if too many people are not following the rules”.
Italy, which has the third highest number of cases globally, has “in effect” banned jogging and cycling.
When asked whether the same may come into effect in the UK, Hancock said if people “flout” the rules than the government “will have to take action”.
Secretary for housing Robert Jenrick has since told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme parks would only be closed as an “absolute last resort”.
Lambeth council shut Brockwell Park in south-east London on Sunday after 3,000 people were said to have visited the day before.
“This is [the council’s] 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,” said Jenrick.
“That really is an absolute last resort and should be because we want people to be able to go out and have exercise”.
Jenrick acknowledged banning outdoor exercise would be particularly challenging for people who live in a flat with no external space.
Gerald Vernon-Jackson – chair of the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sport board – said: “Councils are constantly monitoring the situation regarding our parks.
“Councils know parks are a lifeline for residents needing to get some exercise or fresh air and are great for physical and mental wellbeing.
“This is why councils want to keep parks open, but people need to follow the social distancing advice, otherwise councils will be reluctantly forced to close them as a last resort to help prevent the coronavirus spreading.”
Coronavirus: Banning outdoor exercise would have a ‘negligible impact’
Experts have voiced concerns over the suggestion outdoor exercise could be banned, with one arguing it may make coronavirus complications more serious.
“Banning exercise would have serious deleterious effects especially if maintained for the length of time we are likely to see restrictions,” said Professor Keith Neal from the University of Nottingham.
No one can say for sure how long the lockdown will last, however, 12 weeks has been suggested.
“There are the general benefits of exercise on physical and mental health, but also COVID-19 specific consequences which could lead to an increase in people needed hospitalisation and critical care,” said Professor Neal.
“Exercise reduces blood pressure and obesity, and can improve diabetes control in people with type 2 diabetes.
“These are all very common conditions and also importantly risk factors for severity in COVID-19 infections.
“This could potentially lead to an increase in people needing hospitalisation and critical care.”
Coronavirus complications tend to arise in the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions, like diabetes, asthma or high blood pressure.
Professor Linda Bauld from the University of Edinburgh agreed, adding: “The health implications of the lockdown that we anticipate – increased alcohol consumption, domestic violence, anxiety and depression, poor diet and decreased physical activity – will get worse if we confine more of us to our homes without the hugely important respite that outdoor exercise provides.”
The coronavirus mainly spreads face-to-face via infected droplets expelled in a cough or sneeze.
There is also evidence it can survive on surfaces. A person may therefore “pick up” the virus on their hands and unknowingly infect themselves by touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
Professor John Edmunds from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine argued the risk of “picking up” the virus is “reduced to virtually zero out of doors, as you are much less likely to touch an infected surface”.
Fresh air also “massively dilutes” floating virus particles, while UV light may break the pathogen down, he said.
“Hence, banning people from exercising out of doors would have a negligible impact on the epidemiology of this disease but a marked impact on peoples’ mental health and wellbeing,” added Dr Edmunds.
Two of the experts claim stronger enforcements towards those who flout the rules may be more effective than banning outdoor exercise all together.
“If this change is made, the government needs to be absolutely clear why it is taking this step,” said Professor Bauld.
“If the rationale is virus transmission outdoors, then far stronger evidence is needed to justify it.
“If, instead, it is because people aren’t following the guidance and putting others at risk, then enforcement measures will be key.”
Professor Neal added: “There needs to be better enforcement rather than more restrictions.
“It is perfectly possible to exercise once a day and pose no risk to others or yourself.”
For those unable to leave their home, the World Health Organization’s director-general Dr Tedors Adhanom Ghebreyesus has previously suggested indoor tai chi or yoga.
What is the coronavirus?
The coronavirus is one of seven strains of a virus class that are known to infect humans.
Others cause everything from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed 774 people during its 2002/3 outbreak.
The coronavirus tends to cause flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and slight breathlessness.
Although it mainly spreads via coughs and sneezes, there is also evidence the virus may be transmitted in faeces.
In severe cases, pneumonia can come about if the infection spreads to the air sacs in the lungs.
This causes them to become inflamed and filled with fluid or pus.
The lungs then struggle to draw in air, resulting in reduced oxygen in the bloodstream and a build-up of carbon dioxide.
The coronavirus has no “set” treatment, with most patients naturally fighting off the infection.
Those requiring hospitalisation are offered “supportive care”, like ventilation, while their immune system gets to work.