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COVID Rules Across UK - What They Mean for Walkers and Climbers

© Dan Bailey

England's second national lockdown has started today - but it's not quite the same as last time. Wales has been in a national 'firebreak' lockdown since late October, measures that are due to be reviewed soon. Meanwhile in Scotland a tier system is in place, bringing localised measures rather than blanket national rules. And the situation is different again in Northern Ireland.

This divergence has created a confusing picture, UK-wide. So what does it all mean for walkers and climbers? Are we allowed to travel for exercise, and if so where? What outdoor activities can we participate in; how many people from different households are allowed to meet up; and how do current virus guidelines affect outdoor recreation? And then there's the vexed question of climbing walls.

The common theme is to keep it local  © Mark Glaister
The common theme is to keep it local
© Mark Glaister

Just like the politicians, we've taken a country-by-country approach. Here's a summary of the current state of play:

England

England's second lockdown is scheduled to last four weeks, coming to an end on 2nd December, though the Prime Minister yesterday refused to rule out a possible extension beyond that point. For details see here.

'Hands, face, space'

  • Wash your hands regularly and for 20 seconds
  • Wear a face covering in indoor settings where social distancing may be difficult, and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet
  • Stay 2 metres apart from people you do not live with where possible, or 1 metre with extra precautions in place (such as wearing face coverings or increasing ventilation indoors)

What activities can you do, and with whom?

So long as the basic safety rules are being followed, people can exercise outdoors as much as they like - there is no limit on the number of daily outings. Good news for climbers is that you can meet one other person outdoors from a different household, and neither climbing nor hillwalking have been explicitly discouraged.

For climbers, the BMC advise:

"Consider your choice of venue, as there is potential for increased numbers with indoor options removed. Whilst the likelihood of transmission outdoors is very low, large numbers of people in honeypot locations could result in further general access issues as seen earlier in the year: bad parking, sanitation, litter and drawing attention to sites where formal access has not been agreed. As always, have an alternative plan in case your destination is too busy and be considerate in your actions to make sure we don't see further access losses."

Most indoor leisure venues will remain closed for the duration, and this officially includes climbing walls as well as gyms.

"With walls closed, there may be an increased demand to climb outdoors, but please bear in mind that with the weather taking a turn for the worse, some rock types can be easily damaged in wet or damp conditions" say the BMC.

"The extremely fragile southern sandstone crags, in particular, are even more at risk of damage if wet or damp. Understandably this area has been the focal point for a surge of south-east and London climbers this year, and increased numbers combined with damp rock has the potential to cause significant damage. Don't be tempted to climb on fragile rock types if wet or damp, it is all too easy to accelerate rock erosion and snap small holds. If in doubt, leave it for a day when the rock is dry."

Travel

Overseas travel is not allowed unless it's for work, education or other legally permitted reasons. Except for these exemptions, English residents can also not travel to other parts of the UK. People are asked to reduce the number of journeys they make.

England's national restrictions suggest that while exercise should be done locally wherever possible, you can still travel to do so 'if necessary', for instance to access an open space. The spirit of the guidelines may be to keep it local, but with no specified distance limit it is open to personal interpretation how far it's sensible to travel if you don't have doorstep access to hills or crags.

Walking and cycling are encouraged, while people are advised to try not to use public transport if possible.

For leisure or holidays, overnight stays away from home are not permitted, and this includes caravans and second homes.

Wales

Welsh firebreak restrictions last until 9th November, at which point they will be reviewed and a new set of national rules will be introduced. Restrictions are expected to be eased only very cautiously. For the official info see here

What activities can you do, and with whom?

Until 9th November it is not permitted to meet up with members of another household for the purposes of leisure or exercise, and this rule applies both indoors and outdoors.

Staying active is being encouraged, but within quite strict geographical limits:

"Exercise is important for physical and mental health" state the Welsh Government "and you can leave home as often as you like to exercise as long as you do so from home and alone or with members of your household (and/or a carer)."

Along with other indoor venues, climbing walls are closed.

There are no rules dictating what sorts of exercise are allowed, though in practise the restrictions on indoor activity and mixing with other households will limit climbing. People are asked to avoid activities that involve a 'significant degree of risk', though what that means is open to interpretation.

The BMC have pointed out to Welsh Government that "risk is highly subjective and that for experienced users the risks from mountaineering, rock climbing or hillwalking are actually statistically very low".

Travel

People must stay at home except for very limited purposes, among which is exercise.

There are no limits on the distance you can travel during exercise, but Welsh Government say it should start and finish from your home, and should be done either alone or with a member of your household.

No one should be driving to get somewhere to exercise, and the need to carry sports equipment isn't regarded as a justification for driving. In practise this means most people in Wales are not currently able to go climbing or hillwalking, though residents of National Parks and other such areas should be able to.

Travelling within Wales for a holiday is not one of the permitted reasons to travel under current regulations. It is also not a reasonable excuse to travel to the rest of the UK for a holiday during the firebreak period, and overseas travel from Wales is similarly barred.

Travelling into Wales from elsewhere in the UK for leisure or holiday purposes is not currently permitted.

After 9th November

At this date the current firebreak regulations will cease, and though the precise situation thereafter isn't yet clear, here's what we think we know:

Though people should still avoid non-essential travel, there will be no legal restriction on the distance it is permitted to travel within Wales. Due to English lockdown, people in Wales will not however be able to travel to England, and vice-versa. Overseas holidays will still be off the cards.

"[I]t's highly unlikely that travelling across the border to go walking or climbing or to participate in any form of recreation will be permitted" say the BMC.

All business premises, which have been shut since October 23rd, will be able to reopen on November 9th and up to 15 people will be able to take part in an organised indoor activity. This may be good news for climbing walls in Wales:

"We are working with ABC (Association of Climbing Walls) to [...] urgently seek clarification that climbing walls can reopen with a greater number than 15, as the people exercising at walls are, in practice, a number of individuals sharing a very large (indoor) space and are not an organised group of 15" say the BMC.

Up to 30 people will be able to take part in organised outdoor activities, providing all social distancing, hand hygiene and other Covid safety measures are followed. This may be a green light for club meets and outdoor group instruction.

Scotland

Scotland's 'Tier' system means that differing restrictions apply to different areas (local council authorities). The tier ratings are subject to revision as virus rates change locally. While understanding the rules does require more engagement from individuals, the idea is to avoid blanket national restrictions.

Which tier are you in? Here's a handy postcode checker

What activities can you do, and with whom?

You are allowed to meet others outdoors, following the rules about meeting other households, for informal exercise or sports.

'You can meet people from other households outdoors in a private garden or in a public place such as a park or an outdoor area of a pub. The maximum number of people who can meet outdoors is (Level 0: 15; Level 1-4: 6) which can be from up to (Level 0: 5; Level 1-4: 2) separate households,' the Government advice reads. We understand this to mean that you can climb, run or go hillwalking outdoors with others, but since a geographical element has also been added to the picture, do refer to the Tier system for travel advice between different areas.

At Levels 0-3, all organised sports and exercise activities for all age groups are permitted, provided appropriate safety measures are followed. At Level 4, outdoor non-contact sports are permitted for all age groups, while sports organisations will need to refer to guidance produced by their Scottish Governing Body of Sport and ensure they operate in line with the guidance.

Except for areas in Level 4, leisure businesses - including climbing walls - can be open, and should operate in line with guidance, physical distancing duties, face covering regulations and other hygiene measures. This means that walls will close in areas designated as Level 4.

If you live in one of Scotland's higher tier areas, avoid walking or climbing in a lower tier area such as the highlands  © Dan Bailey
If you live in a tier 3 or 4 area, don't travel into a lower tier area such as the Highlands just to go walking or climbing

"We urge everyone heading out to enjoy the outdoors to be mindful of how their individual actions reflect on the whole outdoor community and to be aware of the concerns that rural and remote communities may have about the risk of transmission from areas where the virus is more prevalent" say Mountaineering Scotland in their latest advice to hillwalkers and climbers.

"We ask individuals to take a sensible approach to their activities, use your judgement to manage the risks, and to consider the social responsibility we all have to each other, to protecting our emergency services and to minimise the transmission of COVID-19"

Follow the current Scottish Government advice (FACTS):

  • Face coverings
  • Avoid crowded places
  • Clean hands regularly
  • Two metre distance
  • Self-isolate (10 days) and book a test if you have symptoms

Travel

Who can travel where in Scotland, and for what reasons? There's a degree of ambiguity, but the clearest source we can find is here.

If you live in a Level 4 local authority area you should:

  • avoid any unnecessary travel out of the area
  • also keep journeys within the area to an absolute minimum
  • if you have to travel for essential purposes, follow the guidance on travelling safely

If you live in a Level 3 local authority area you should:

  • avoid any unnecessary travel out of the area
  • if you have to travel for essential purposes, follow the guidance on travelling safely

If you live in a Level 0, 1, or 2 area in Scotland, or are considering travel to Scotland from anywhere else, you should:

  • minimise unnecessary journeys between areas in different levels
  • and avoid any unnecessary travel to places in Level 3 or Level 4 areas
  • if you have to travel for essential purposes, follow the guidance on travelling safely

The current Scottish Government guidance, given the state of the epidemic across the UK is that people avoid any unnecessary travel between Scotland and England, Wales, or Northern Ireland. This applies to people who live in Scotland and to people who live elsewhere in the UK who are thinking of coming to Scotland. This may change as the virus spreads or is suppressed in different areas, and as the rules and guidance in place there change.

Exceptions

There is a list of limited exceptions from the guidance not to travel into or out of Level 3 and 4 local authority areas, which have a positive impact on the freedom to exercise. 'Please do not see these as loopholes. It is important for everyone's safety that we all minimise such travel as much as possible,' the Scottish Government says.

The exceptions pertaining to the outdoors in Level 3 and 4 areas are:

  • local outdoor informal exercise such as walking, cycling, golf, or running (in groups of up to 6 people from no more than 2 households) that starts and finishes at the same place
  • travel locally (within around 5 miles of your local authority area) to reach a place to take exercise outdoors

Relying on people to use a degree of personal judgement may be wooly, but it also allows some flexibility to account for circumstance. However the intention is pretty clear: Residents of areas that are currently tier 3, for example Glasgow, should not be considering travelling any significant distance into a lower level area such as the Highlands in order to walk or climb. Residents in a tier 2 area may arguably have more leeway, but the general spirit of the guidance is still to keep things local where possible.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's current regulations were introduced on 16 October, and will be in place for four weeks.

What activities can you do, and with whom?

In brief, you can travel for outdoor recreation and climbing walls can stay open.

'Outdoor non-contact sport is permitted at non-elite level, with a limit of 15 people. Public health advice should be followed,' the Northern Ireland Executive Office's Q&A advice says. You can climb or walk outdoors with others, but the unnecessary travel advice below suggests that keeping it local would be best.

Organised non-elite, non-contact sporting events such as golf, cycling and athletics can continue outdoors with a limit of 15 people. We believe that organised climbing instruction and meets would fit in this category.

Gyms - including climbing walls - may remain open but for individual training only with local enforcement in place.

Check out the NI Executive's COVID page.

Travel

People are being asked to avoid all unnecessary travel. Face coverings must be worn on public transport unless there is an exemption.

Hotels, guesthouses and bed and breakfast establishments will only be able to operate on a restricted basis. Accommodation can be provided for those already resident; for work-related purposes; for vulnerable people; for those in emergency situations; and people unable to return to their main address.

Self-catering and rented accommodation can remain open, however only members of one household or bubble are permitted to stay together.

Access to static caravans remains open, however campsites and services for touring caravans must close.


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