Crowds return to beauty spots in England as coronavirus lockdown eases

Beaches, country parks and beauty spots across England were busy on Wednesday as people were allowed to drive as far as they wished to exercise for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown was initiated, with police saying it may become more difficult to enforce the new regulations.

Helen Pidd www.theguardian.com 

Despite pleas from local authorities, public health chiefs and even tourist bosses for people to stay away from visitor hotspots, routes to coastlines and countryside were congested.

While slightly chilly conditions may have kept the beaches of south-west England from becoming too crowded, it was clear that many people were drawn back to their favourite spots.

Julian German, leader of Cornwall council, said that as far as he was concerned, the county remained shut to visitors. He expressed concern over the lack of clarity from the UK government. He said: “I find it amazing that the government is telling people they cannot see their close family members due to the risk of spreading the virus, but is also telling them they are fine to drive hundreds of miles for a day out.”

The council said it received about 30 calls a day from people complaining that second home owners had sneaked to their boltholes in Cornwall. German said it would be almost impossible for police to stop people from coming to their holiday retreats because they could simply say they were travelling to do exercise.

People were also heading back into the water. Padstow Harbour in north Cornwall posted a “notice to mariners” allowing kayakers, windsurfers, kite- and paddle-boarders and dinghy sailors to use the estuary for “the purpose of exercise”.

The RNLI said none of its lifeguards were working on beaches in the UK and called for people to think carefully before going into or near the water.

On the Norfolk Broads, one man was rescued after he capsized in gusty conditions. An ambulance, five fire engines and the coastguard were called to the scene at about 11am on Wednesday.

Ben Falat, chairman of the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association, who made the 999 call after he saw the man in the water, said: “His boat was barely seaworthy. He didn’t do a good enough risk assessment for going sailing at any time, let alone in these times.”

In north Devon, the popular surfing locations of Woolacombe and Mortehoe asked people to stay away. “We do not have the capacity to cope if there is an outbreak in either of the villages,” a notice on the Mortehoe parish website read. But metal detectorists, hikers and kayakers were spotted.

Wiltshire police expressed concern at plans that appeared on social media advertising a gathering at a country park in Swindon. A police spokesperson said: “Calling for a mass gathering is a flagrant breach of the regulations and the guidance on social distancing and is wholly irresponsible.”

The tourism body for Blackpool has rebranded itself as Do Not Visit Blackpool in an attempt to discourage visitors. Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool council, said the government’s new message meant there was nothing that could be done to stop visitors, but he urged people to stay away for now.

Tory MP Robert Goodwill said the North Yorkshire seaside towns of Whitby and Scarborough feared a deluge of visitors. He said: “I would remind people that the toilets are closed, the car parks are closed. Whitby and Scarborough are not accepting visitors at this time.”

Celia Barnes, who lives in Skegness, Lincolnshire, said she had been shielding for nine weeks and had not left her home – yet now tourists were being allowed to visit her town. She said: “How is it fair that we will be inundated with people flocking to the beach who might have the virus?”

New rules permitting day trips to outdoor open spaces in England came into force on Wednesday, with no limit on the distance allowed. The full “stay at home” lockdown restrictions remain in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The changes in certain lockdown rules come as police officers were told they could not enforce social distancing in England, while officers in Wales have been told they can. The College of Policing and police chiefs issued new guidance trying to explain the more complicated rules to 125,000 officers in England and Wales.

It tells officers to apply legal guidelines only and not what they may have heard from politicians. It says: “Government guidance is not enforceable, for example, two-metre distancing, avoiding public transport, or the wearing of face coverings in enclosed spaces.”

In Wales it says, two-metre distancing is enforceable, and exercise is allowed only in an “area local to the place where the person is living”.

It emerged that Greater Manchester police were called to more than 1,000 house parties and large gatherings over the Bank Holiday weekend. Bev Hughes, the deputy mayor of Greater Manchester, said the “subliminal message [from the government] is that you can go out as much as you like”.

Ian Hopkins said the new regulations made policing more complex. The chief constable of Greater Manchester police said: “We’ve gone from what was a relatively strong message with some fairly clear legislation into something that’s now more fluid. People have more leeway around what they can and can’t do.”

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, said: “Police still have a role where people are gathering in groups with those not in their household or if they’ve left their house for one of the reasons not designated as a reasonable excuse.

“We will use common sense and discretion to determine what’s reasonable. Officers will engage, explain, encourage and, only as a last resort, enforce.”

Simon Fell, the Conservative MP for Barrow and Furness in Cumbria, said the Lake District could be closed if the infection rate increased. “We need to keep a really, really close eye on the R number, and if we see it go up, turn on the restrictions straight away,” he said.

In Bournemouth, where beach hut owners were allowed back for the first time, Rob Underhill, 67, was among the first to return. “It is wonderful to be back here and to be able to look out at the sea,” he said.