Regent’s Park, between 6:00 and 7.00 pm, Friday evening, sunny and warm. Beautiful. But scary. At first glance, the park doesn’t look too bad. Mostly small groups, well spaced out. A perfect early summer’s evening, and it’s not even summer yet.
But first you have to get there. Walking through Soho and Fitzrovia is no problem, as quiet as they’ve been all through the lockdown, a pleasant stroll. The first sign of trouble is outside Great Portland Street station: a scrum of people waiting to cross Marylebone Road at the traffic lights. Not a huge number but no attempt at social distancing. Having been in a largely deserted West End for the past 10 weeks, that’s a bit of a shock to the system. But maybe it’s just because we’re at a pinch point.
The lights change, the pack flows across Albany Street towards Park Square East. Here, despite more room on the pavements, fears grow. Family groups and individuals are mostly oblivious to anyone else and only one person is interested in giving me and himself space. Crossing the Outer Circle is fraught. Again, not huge numbers of people, but enough to have to concentrate on finding a gap, complicated by sports cyclists who tend not to slow much on the turn at the junction. Oh, and there are cars too. Not such a pleasant stroll by this stage.
To be fair, it’s better in the park. But a closer look reveals worrying signs. Walkers are far less concerned about social distancing than they have been up to now. And those enjoying themselves on the grass? Lots are in groups of more than two. They’re surely not all made up of people from the same household. And even before the regulations are relaxed on Monday, there are several clusters of more than six people.
I haven’t mentioned the bikes. Not just on the Broad Walk, where they’re allowed, but all over the place. These aren’t regular cyclists, but the new breed of lockdown cyclists who’ve adopted “tourist” regulations: in other words, you can ride wherever you like. In a busy park they make walking miserable.
In the end, I bailed out early – an uncomfortable exit, with narrow fenced pavement, too many people, more speeding bikes – and found a haven on Baker Street (which only illustrates how life has changed under lockdown).
Snowflake stuff? I hope not. In itself, my experience was no big deal. But if it represents the broader reality, then I’m concerned about two serious risks to our city, our country.
Risks one is obvious. If people are much less bothered about Covid-19, there is a clear risk to health and to the NHS. In and around Regent’s Park it was easy to see the potential for renewed spread of the virus. The public mood has been affected by the “drive as far as you like” lockdown relaxation. The Cummings controversy has categorically not helped. And there is little obvious enforcement of regulations. The result? Growing numbers of people hear the easing of restrictions as a message that there is not much to worry about now.
Risk two is less obvious, perhaps, but there’s a growing division between the “weak” and the “strong” which threatens social cohesion. Regent’s Park is the tip of the iceberg. We could be heading for “no go” areas from which the nervous, the cautious, the vulnerable, the more socially conscious are effectively excluded. These are the people who have kept to the rules, whether they agree with them or not, and have waited for the government to make changes before changing their behaviour. As we begin the slow return to a more normal public life, they could well be restricted in practice by the careless, the ignorant and the selfish, as well as those who genuinely think they are not taking risks. I certainly wouldn’t advise trying to enjoy Regent’s Park on a sunny day.
Whatever mistakes you think the government has made during the crisis, it deserves credit for the level of national unity maintained until recently. But a shift is observable, at least from where I am. If public behaviour is increasingly at odds with government legislation and guidance this threatens our health and will build resentment among those who are keeping the rules. I’m sympathetic to the need to gradually move towards more normal life. It’s in everyone’s interest. But we need to move together, led by the government.
What could be done? It’s not an easy task. Again, maybe Regent’s Park gives us a clue. A more obvious presence of authority could make a big difference. Stewards at the entrances – to keep out bikes, keep an eye on safety, help regulate pedestrian flow and act as a visible reminder of the need for caution – would help. Mobile patrols to break up large groups would reinforce this.
It would have to be light touch, firm only when necessary, always fair. Applied more widely across the public realm, targeted where larger numbers of people are going to come together, this sort of approach could help to retain public confidence and maintain a certain equality.
Government strategy now should be to take back control. If the attitudes and behaviour of a significant percentage of the population run ahead of government regulations, we are heading for trouble.
Photograph: Regent’s Park early Saturday evening. By Andrew Murray.
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