Meeting my friend Stuart in Leeds is always arranged by text, so I was surprised when he called my mobile. “Let me put this out there,” Stuart said. “How about taking off for a walk in some remote spot where we’re not going to come within two miles of anyone, never mind two metres?”
No, I had to tell him. The fresh air Gestapo are mounting spot-checks on cars heading into the Dales and Pennines. We’ll be lucky to cross the A1 if we try for the North York Moors. Then there’s those Derbyshire Police drones ready to swoop down on us in the Peak District. Better stay local.
Which is what we’ll do, even though the single outing for exercise we are permitted each day involves constantly side-stepping others who have no choice but to take a walk in the same open spaces. Another friend who has a serious health condition and lives not far from Roundhay Park in Leeds tells me he daren’t go there because of the large numbers of people, and wonders why he can’t jump in the car and exercise somewhere that is completely deserted. It seems crazy.
Conceived by the government with the best of intentions, I am not surprised that some police forces are executing this lockdown in a heavy-handed way. Authoritarianism was never far from the surface in the attitude of many high-ranking bobbies I met as a newspaper journalist. Left to interpret a command they will choose the draconian option, like South Yorkshire Police’s cavalry charge on striking miners at Orgreave and the Met’s infamous kettling of students and G-20 demonstrators in London.
The widely condemned drone sent over a Derbyshire beauty spot to finger people taking a walk is especially ominous. Leaving aside the irony that it was in this very landscape that the 1930s mass trespasses established our legal right to walk in wild countryside, the use of a drone to track people is pure Orwellian.
There is also a sinister echo of East Germany’s notorious Stasi in some English police forces like Humberside and Greater Manchester encouraging the public to grass up their neighbours if they suspect them of flouting the lockdown rules. Then there’s the apparent ban on selling Easter eggs because they’re not essential food items. All of which moved former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption to warn the UK was in danger of becoming a police state.
In my view, police forces should under no circumstances be allowed to devise their own ways of applying the lockdown. But I’m also clear that in this, the most serious emergency in my lifetime, life just cannot go on as normal. I’m certain that those people whose family or friends become part of the grim daily rollover of accumulating deaths and confirmed infections will take a very different view from those of us who, so far, are merely inconvenienced.
Likewise, millions are losing out financially. To those who face the loss of jobs and perhaps their homes, the largely middle class craving to drive to a deserted hillside or beach for their exercise is completely out of touch with reality. This crisis has a long way to go, and with gritted teeth I’m observing the rules and praying Covid-19 doesn’t come to the doors of my family and friends.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe
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