Sanjoy Sen: The Derbyshire Police had a point about people walking in the Peak District

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer in North Sea oil. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.

Whoever said you should always have a Plan B in life was wrong. You also need at least a C and D.

Last year, I came within 214 votes of successfully executing Plan A in Alyn & Deeside. But I did have a consolation Plan B: travel for a few months before re-entering the job market. I pondered various permutations and carefully got my finances in order. But, in hindsight, I now see I was somewhat remiss in not factoring in global pandemics. (Come to think of it, Plans C and D wouldn’t have been much use right now, either.)

Never mind. For now, I’m back in Derbyshire (where I was born and raised) and signing up as a volunteer. And, until last week, I was heading out to the Peak District regularly, walking nearby areas that I’d never fully appreciated before.

But all that changed on Monday following the new ‘Stay at Home’ instruction. For me, the permission to take daily exercise was unclear: could you keep driving out in to the countryside for a walk (or bike ride) or not? Elliot Kech mentioned here yesterday that he got in the car and headed for the countryside. Meanwhile, I played it safe and confined my expeditions to shorter walks closer to home.

And it’s perhaps just as well that I did. Otherwise I might have starred in Derbyshire Police’s now infamous drone-cam footage of folks shamed (but luckily not named) for continuing to venture into the Peak District. The Twitter response (always a reliable barometer of the public mood) so far has varied from whole-hearted support of the police’s robust stance to scathing remarks over Orwellian levels of intrusion. Plus the usual ‘why aren’t you busy catching real criminals’ although, in fairness, the two things needn’t be mutually exclusive.

So was the Derbyshire Police’s stance right?

One thing’s for sure, things had to change – and quickly. Last weekend, local tourist hot-spots, including Matlock Bath, were jam-packed with visitors. Social distancing would have been a challenge, so I steered clear. Sadly, whilst fresh air and exercise are vitally important, it was vital for the government to urgently impose restrictions on movement. And given that the police can’t be everywhere, forces needed to send out the right messages to encourage us to all abide by the rules.

Whilst the townies (identifiable by the designer gear and pristine white trainers) kept to the best-known locations, experienced walkers (plus the born-again Alfred Wainwrights such as me) headed off the beaten track and essentially had the place to ourselves.

So if folks continue to properly socially distance, what’s the problem? I guess the answer, as per some of Derbyshire Police’s later tweets, is that such activity can lead to other hazards – and one more rural road-traffic accident or one additional fracture from a hillside fall is just one too many for the emergency services right now.

What is needed is a common-sense approach. On my more local walks, unsurprisingly, footpaths get busier closer to housing. Maintaining the rules in such places has to be more of a priority – and, in fairness, they were well respected even in the absence of the police. And a friendly reminder instead of a fine probably strikes the right tone for most transgressions.

Once this is all over, we do need a robust debate about the level of surveillance (by drone or otherwise) that is appropriate. It’s a complex issue in which many of us are happy when technology snares the bad guys but aren’t too keen on being monitored as we go about our everyday lives.

This week, I’ve been hearing a lot from my relatives over in India where a total curfew is being rigorously enforced. Compared to the restrictions they are living through, we are relatively lucky here in the UK. Let’s just hope that mis-use of our current mini-‘freedoms’ doesn’t lead to further infections and further restrictions. Whilst I find the present curtailment of my personal right to roam the Peak District frustrating, I reluctantly sympathise. Whilst Elliot is right that being filmed by a drone whilst in the middle of nowhere has a somewhat dystopian feel, the Derbyshire Police and the other emergency services have a lot on their plate right now. Perhaps the tone of the message jarred but it’s still the right message.

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