Elliot Keck works for BICOM, and is a Conservative Party activist in West London. This piece is written in a personal capacity.
A helicopter’s blades beat over head as its spotlight glided over the Peak District, seeking out insurrectionaries who dared to defy state instructions. In the distance, sirens wailed and dogs barked, as Big Brother closed in on the couple walking their dog at the Curbar Edge.
Okay, not really. The reality was far more banal, albeit in a very 21st-century way. Derbyshire Police used drones to capture parked cars and unassuming walkers in the Peak District, before uploading the footage with sneering subtitles to Twitter.
Here are some of the activities deemed non-essential: walking your dog in the Peak District; going for a walk miles from home; going out of your way for an Instagram snap; driving to a beauty spot for a stroll; and heading to the Peaks to watch the sunset. The Government’s instructions are clear, the video insists. We are allowed to leave our homes for the following reasons: to shop for basic necessities, for medical care, to travel to and from work if absolutely necessary, and one form of exercise a day.
I do actually have some sympathy for the Derbyshire Police; the footage of Brits flocking to Snowdonia last weekend was appalling, and shaming is an important means of enforcing vital social norms.
But let’s distinguish here between the letter and the spirit of the law. According to the letter of the law, we should be exercising locally, and avoiding non-essential travel. But the spirit of the law instructs us to maintain a two-metre distance at all times from anyone not in our household.
I have been on two walks since the partial national lockdown. On Wednesday I went walking in my local parks in Northfields, West London. It was like playing a game of Pacman or Frogger. I had to be continuously alert to the movements of others, planning well in advance my direction of travel to ensure I maintained my (social) distance. I may have been obeying the letter of the law, but it was only with genuine mental exertion could I obey the spirit.
Fortunate enough to have a car, I decided to try a different strategy yesterday. I drove to the Chilterns, where I took a four-mile stroll on Watlington Hill (lovely views – thank you for asking) and the surrounding countryside. I could count the number of encounters I had on one hand. On every occasion I and my walking counterpart kept well clear of each other. A nod and a smile, and on our separate ways we both went.
Now admittedly it was indulgent to lie in the sun for half an hour, half a dozen kites circling above me (not unlike the drones of the Peak District, albeit far less menacing). But with the exception of those majestic birds of prey, I was completely alone. Completing my state-mandated walk of the day, I returned home in my car.
I am genuinely conflicted whether it was the right thing to do. In a time of national emergency, government instructions should be adhered to, and while I indisputably upheld the spirit of the law, I probably did test the limits of what might be considered responsible behaviour.
But there was something jarring, and even mildly dystopian, about the Derbyshire police footage from yesterday. For I and the individuals caught on camera in the Peak District were doing precisely what has been drilled into us for weeks – social distancing.