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Trips to the countryside causing ‘untold anxieties’ for locals

Countryside groups want a revision of police guidance permitting drives to rural areas for a walk during the Covid-19 shutdown.

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Countryside visits during Covid-19 crisis causing anxiety to residents, according to campaigners (Steve Parsons/PA)

Countryside visits during Covid-19 crisis causing anxiety to residents, according to campaigners (Steve Parsons/PA)

Countryside visits during Covid-19 crisis causing anxiety to residents, according to campaigners (Steve Parsons/PA)

Campaigners are calling for an urgent review of police guidance on visiting the countryside during the shutdown after receiving hundreds of messages from concerned residents.

They said recent advice to police forces that it is lawful to drive somewhere to exercise, including a trip to the countryside, would cause “untold anxieties” in their communities.

As a rule of thumb, police forces were told visiting the countryside was permissible if more time is spent walking than driving to the starting point.

Stopping to rest or eat lunch while on a long walk is also acceptable, the guidance said.

It was issued by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and College of Police following complaints officers were being heavy-handed in their interpretation of the coronavirus restrictions.

Examples include Derbyshire Police filming walkers with drones to deter visits to the Peak District, while North Yorkshire Police stopped drivers to see if their journeys could be deemed essential.

But now the National Rural Crime Network (NRCN), National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Countryside Alliance and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) want restrictions tightened.

In an open letter to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, they claimed the guidance would make managing Covid-19 more difficult.

The signatories said they were receiving hundreds of messages every day from residents complaining of people flouting the law.

The letter read: “There are great concerns that the new policing guidance will encourage even more people to carry out unnecessarily long journeys to exercise in rural areas, which will in turn put increased pressures on rural police forces and communities.

“It is specifically the guidance on length of travel versus length of exercise that is likely to cause problems in the battle against Covid-19 and has a particular impact on the rural communities we represent.

“The key message needs to remain: stay home, save lives. Anything which complicates that message is unhelpful.”

In the guidance to police, officers were told to keep in mind the purpose of the new legislation – to prevent the spread of infection – and to use their judgment in each case to determine what travel is “necessary” and “reasonable”.

Human rights charity Liberty has called for careful scrutiny of the wide-ranging powers.

Director Martha Spurrier said: “Times of crisis can create the conditions for our rights to be swept away.

“We are asked to compromise, to trust in the State and submit to ever greater control.

“It is at these times, when some sacrifice can be justified, that we must be more vigilant than ever to ensure everyone in society is protected.

“The Government has responded to the coronavirus pandemic by giving police sweeping powers resulting in some heavy-handed policing. This needs to be urgently addressed.”

PA