COVID-19: History shows public treat advice as law for the common good13 May 2020
Professor Adrian Bell, Dean for Prosperity and Resilience and Professor in the History of Finance at the University of Reading, said:
“Following the relaxation of outdoor exercise rules announced on Sunday, it might surprise a lot of people to know that everyone in the UK (outside of Wales) has legally been able to enjoy unlimited outside exercise since the lockdown started.
“It has been regularly reported in the media and remarked by people that we were only permitted one hour of exercise per day during the full lockdown. But one of the main drivers for a historian is curiosity, and I am curious to track back why our belief in what we are actually allowed is so different from the reality.
“Revisiting the actual sources confirms that the law passed to underpin the lockdown allowed exercise as one of the excuses for leaving your home, but this was not limited by frequency, length, distance or time. This law has been embellished, and phrased as only one form of exercise being permitted for each person per day. Although Boris Johnson stated ‘one form of exercise’ would be permitted in his public broadcast on March 22 to announce the start of lockdown, he also did not specify a time limit.
“So where does the credence for the one hour of exercise emerge from? It appears that the hour was first suggested by Michael Gove when interviewed outside his house on 29 March by Andrew Marr. Gove mentioned his own 25-minute run that day, and suggested: ‘I would have thought that for most people, a walk of up to an hour, or a run of 30 minutes or a cycle ride of between that, depending on their level of fitness is appropriate’.
“It seems surprising that such a statement went on to underpin the so called rule of one hour of exercise a day, but historians know that myths generally have very flimsy foundations.
“What is interesting is the fact most people respected this restriction, despite the fact it was never legally enforceable. We have treated the recommendation as if it was law for the common good, in the same way ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ slogans were enthusiastically adopted during the Second World War. Yet it is clear that the government relaxation of this rule has only allowed us to do something that was already our legal right.
"This demonstrates the power of government messaging when the public is keen to comply - for instance against a common threat. The fact the strategy for exiting lockdown is requiring a further change of behaviour from the public may be the reason why the government is struggling with its revised messaging, especially as aspects like encouraging people to go back to work are not universally popular."