I don’t think I fully realised last week what a privilege it actually is to be able to physically go to work – I get to ride 10-miles there, get out of my home for a bit, see other people outside my family and then ride back again in the fresh air. I’m now on my fourth rest day (of four) and very much itching to get out on my bike for a quick lap of the lanes; and perversely looking forward to my 4:30am alarm call to get out of the house again and off to work. Mrs B and Master B are working and schooling from home and I can see the restrictions taking effect on them both in small ways. I’m also conscious of my elderly mother living on her own in the North-East who is pretty much locked in and being supplied by others, as required.
So what does the law say (on Monday 30th March! – because it may change later if tougher restrictions are brought in, as may be considered potentially necessary). There are various reasons I’ve decided to write-this, but all of them rotate around the frustration of misinformation and misunderstanding! —
The starting point is this –
You must stay at the place where you are living, unless you have a “reasonable excuse”.
This includes but is not restricted to those things listed within Regulation 6. I’m going to include some of the examples listed, but not all of them – so you may wish to read them for yourself (it doesn’t take long). The ones I’ve chosen are either the most important ones, which are worth repeating for their own sake or those which are relevant to the discussions I’ve seen that I want to comment upon. Forgive me for saying this again: this is not the full list and the law makes clear: even the full list (in Regulation 6 of the English regulations) are not the only things which could amount to ‘a reasonable excuse’. And crucially, the first judgement of what may be reasonable will, by definition, be that of the police officer who may be considering initiating enforcement action; then for any court the matter appears before if the person opts for a trial instead of paying the penalty notice.
One more caveat: Chief Constables, police forces and politicians alike have expressed their reluctance to move to enforcement. Even individual officers using social media have stated they don’t want to have to police this stuff by enforcement (quite a relief, given the reasons behind this post). They would prefer to Engage, Explain and / or Educate – Enforcement is the fourth stage in a four stage strategy.
That said, here are those examples I’d like to highlight –
- To buy basic necessities – for those in the household or for vulnerable persons. NB: it does not restrict people’s purchases to ‘essential items’ only and is not restricted just to food and drink. Chocolate hobnobs would never be considered essential to survival, for example: nothing in these regulations restricts purchases only to those things which are!
- To take exercise alone or with members of the same household – but please note: the Welsh regulations add the words “once a day”, a phrase which does NOT appear in the equivalent English, Scottish or Northern Irish regulations. Also note: it does not limit this to one hour, as is sometimes rumoured. But the exercise must be ‘reasonable’ overall – see my personal reflections on this, below, for an example. And they are just my personal reflections, nothing more.
- To seek medical treatment – obviously including adults leaving the house when they are medically fine, to take children or vulnerable people to medical treatment if they cannot access it for themselves. And this doesn’t just include emergency medical treatment. If you still have an appointment with your GP for your angina related check up and feel fine, nothing prevents you going if your GP is still seeing people.
- To travel to work – where this is unavoidable because the person cannot work from home. But please note, contrary to what the Mayor of London said on Twitter recently(!), this travel to work justification is not just for so-called ‘key-workers’. Anyone whose occupation is still operating and who cannot work from home, is allowed to travel to work, including by Tube, if they live or work in London.
- To fulfil a legal obligation – one lady asked about whether she’s allowed to drive to her horses six miles away, given she must take fresh water every day and is alone responsible for the animals’ welfare. I don’t think anyone thinks the horses should be left to die of thirst and hunger and she has a legal duty to care for them and prevent their neglect and suffering, as the owner.
This one seems to be where the debate gets going so let’s pile straight in to it! … how much exercise, what kind, can you travel in order to undertake it?
We’ve seen examples of police forces posting notices in car parks near to woods; leaving advisory or even prosecution-threatening letters under windscreen wipers, stating various things on social media – including insisting that people may only exercise once day, which is correct in Wales, but not expressly correct for England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Is it reasonable to exercise more than once a day? That will be context specific – some people with certain medical conditions might need to do so, but whether they’d need to leave their home might be a distinct question. Almost certainly not reasonable for me to exercise outdoors more than once a day as I’m getting regular ‘exercise’ by cycling to work without resorting to any claim about my right to exercise. But I can imagine some disabilities and medical conditions could mean people would need to go out twice a day for short periods of exercise rather than once for a longer period. Again, what is reasonable in those circumstances?
Nothing in the UK regulations states that you cannot get in your car and drive to the place where you then exercise or walk your dog. However! – you need to remember the over-arching caveat: the action you take if you leave the place where you live must be reasonable. So it probably invites the question, why was it not reasonable to have a walk or ride starting from your own home? Well, there could be an answer to that in some very limited circumstances. One man asked about this because his disabled daughter cannot easily walk in very the hilly area of town where they live and she needs to exercise regularly to maintain a certain mobility because of more profound difficulties she would otherwise have arising from her condition. He wanted to know if he could drive “a couple of miles” to a beachfront where his daughter can walk on a flat promenade? Seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it? – if there’s nowhere closer that is appropriate and viable, it probably amounts to a reasonable excuse, in law. She can’t do it where she lives for reasons of disability, so they’ve done it the nearest available place where it is possible. You could imagine the same for some elderly people: in the last few years of his life, my old man wouldn’t have been able to walk up and down hills – but he could do a bit along a flat promenade and it would do him good both physically and mentally.
But importantly, my pointing this out does NOT mean that driving with your dog for 45mins to a beauty spot so you can walk on the cliff tops with stunning views is OK – it’s almost certainly not! When there is no obvious medical or other reason why you couldn’t have just walked or rode near your home to achieve the necessary exercise, you should just walk or ride near your home. Whether you’d prefer to do something is not the same thing as whether you need to and can only do it ‘elsewhere’. This is what’s important: there can be no definitive list, despite various calls for certainty – what is ‘reasonable’ would have to be judged by officers, by courts or by any of us only in full knowledge of the very specific context and background. What might be reasonable for our gentleman with a disabled daughter wouldn’t be reasonable for me if I lived there – if that man and his daughter lived where I do, they wouldn’t need to drive to the beach to access flat pavements.
So my cycling to work continues: even if the UK had a French-style ban, I’d still be allowed to cycle to work because I’m a 24/7 999 officer who cannot work from home in my particular role and this is how I get to work normally. But cycling recreationally? – as things stand in the UK, nothing says I can’t do it but what I do still has to be reasonable and minimised where I’m doing it just for exercise and for fun on days off. Exercise is covered by Regulation 6(2)(b) in England (similar provisions in other parts of the UK, albeit Welsh regulations add that “once a day” thing). I am allowed to take exercise alone and as it happens I only ever cycle alone – I’m not a member of a club or group, so there’s been little change for me in that respect.
I often do a 20-mile “training loop” around my town in the wonderfully isolated lanes of north Worcestershire – sometimes I do it two or three times in succession or go on longer rides around the wider region. I could prove all of this by showing my Strava history as being ‘normal for me’ but having thought about this carefully, I really don’t need to do that at the moment. I can easily minimise it whilst still feeling like I’m keeping fit, active and healthy. I’ve decided an occasional, single loop on some (but not all) of my days off would be considered reasonable as it takes just over an hour and on work days, I’ll only do my 20-mile commute. Whether I’m right about this interpretation might depend on what the police officer thinks if they decided to stop me and enquire as to my justification for what I’m doing. It’s certainly would be unreasonable to do a 100-mile all-day jolly across Worcestershire and Herefordshire with my homemade sausage rolls stuffed in my cycling jersey, for example – that sort of nonsense will have to wait a while!
Remember the message: STAY AT HOME, unless you have a reasonable excuse. Which essentially might mean, you cannot otherwise manage what you’re trying to achieve in a way which keeps you more within and closer to your own four walls. And you remove the potential for officers to have to wrestle with the specifics of this stuff, the more obviously you can adhere to overall purpose without burying yourself in the technicalities of it all. Remember, it was quickly drafted, as legislation goes, for an unprecedented set of circumstances and enforcement of criminal laws for public health purposes is somewhat novel for most of us. Everyone living by, debating and yes, educating and enforcing this stuff, is learning on the hoof and police social media is showing up a lot of problems, in my view. So please read do the actual regulations, remember what they’re trying to achieve and think about what others may view as reasonable. The point of this is to keep us physically separate from each other to and minimise contact and the risk of transmission, but only to the extent it is necessary.
‘Reasonable’ is an ordinary English word, it has an ordinary English meaning. Officers need to remember how ‘reasonable’ would be judged and apply common sense to their interpretation of this stuff – do try to stay safe and well, folks!
Winner of the President’s Medal,
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award
All opinions expressed are my own – they do not represent the views of any organisation.
(c) Michael Brown OBE, 2020
I try to keep this blog up to date, but inevitably over time, amendments to the law as well as court rulings and other findings from inquests and complaints processes mean it is difficult to ensure all the articles and pages remain current. Please ensure you check all legal issues in particular and take appropriate professional advice where necessary.
Government legislation website – http://www.legislation.gov.uk