In my newsletter yesterday morning, I said that Vinnalls Car Park at the Mortimer Forest was open. It had been all weekend. But this seems to have been the result of guerrilla action not a change in policy by Forestry England. The car park was duly closed off again. My apologies for the misinformation and causing confusion. Vinnalls Car Park will be closed for the duration.
There is a lively debate going on Facebook about the closure of car parks. I have received a flood of emails and several phone calls. At the heart of the discussion is the interpretation of the government statements and the regulations that form the body of the law and underpin public policy. I’ll return to that in a later article.
The government began taking about social distancing at the beginning of March. Its action plan to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak was issued on 4 March and the first social distancing measures were put in place. Confirmed cases and deaths began to grow, though at that stage slowly. Some members of the public didn’t get the message at first, but then neither did many MPs and ministers.
On 20 March, Boris Johnson ordered all pubs, cafes and other social venues to close. Maybe people needed to work off their hangovers from a last minute binge that Friday night. More likely they just wanted to take advantage of the pleasantly warm and dry weather to stretch their legs. But that weekend many people headed to crowded beaches. Others strolled up congested hills, even queueing to get up some mountains. It was business as usual.
It was clear that messages about social distancing clearly hadn’t got through to many people. The government, not for the first or last time seeming to be behind the curve during this crisis, announced lockdown on Monday 23 March. Regulations were put in place on 26 March. There has since been controversy over how they are interpreted by police, the public and businesses.
Forestry England car parks were among many closed around the country, including car parks on National Trust properties. This is what Forestry England issued to the media following the College of Policing advice on the lockdown:
“Q. Can I go to my local forest to exercise?
“People are allowed one form of exercise a day and the advice is that people stay local and use open spaces near to their home where possible – do not travel unnecessarily.
“Local people can still walk and cycle to our forests for their daily exercise but must follow government rules on social distancing and not congregate in groups of more than two people other than members of your household. If walking your dog in areas used by other people, you should walk your dog on a lead to ensure you can safely keep two metres away from others.
“We know some local people will still want to drive but we must consider the bigger picture and do what we can to prevent unnecessary travelling and dangerous crowding.
“Therefore, all Forestry England car parks, toilets, visitor centres, cafes and bike hire businesses are officially closed, not just for social distancing purposes, but also in order to manage our forests and our staff safely in the current circumstances.”
There is a clear logic to closing toilets, visitor centres and cafes. These are places where people congregate in proximity.
Closing car parks is more controversial. Forestry England’s action is based on government guidance issued three weeks ago, which seems a long time in the history of this epidemic. That guidance does not mention either driving or car parking.
At the weekend, I received several reports that the Vinnalls car park was open as usual. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a result of guerrilla action not a change in policy the Forestry England. Vinnalls car park remains closed for the duration.
A major concern for Forestry England and the police is the honeypot effect. If car parks at Mortimer Forest are opened, but they are not opened elsewhere, the agency thinks that people will drive long distances to get to the forest. That would be against the regulations. And it could lead to overcrowding in beauty spots and a lack of social distancing.