Why sunbathing in the park is a bad idea

As I write this (Sunday 5th April) the Health Secretary has said on the Andrew Marr show that if people don’t follow the social distancing “rules” the rules may have to get even more strict even up to banning all outside exercise. A London borough has also closed a park because they say people were “abusing” it. At the same time some people are saying the “rules” are stupid and illogical and penalise young people and people in flats.

So why does the government say it’s safe to walk in the park if keeping 2m apart but if I want to sunbathe even if we’re all 3m apart they say they’ll close the park?

This is a fair question and I hope I can go some way towards answering it here but first I want you to completely forget about the idea that some behaviour is safe and some behaviour is unsafe. I know that is how the government is portraying things but that is because they want (in my view mistakenly) to keep things simple.

At the risk of you thinking I’m talking about something else entirely, the mistake they are making is presenting something as binary when, in this case, it actually is a spectrum

ALL behaviours carry a risk of transmitting virus particles from infected people to uninfected people but the level of risk varies enormously depending on how we behave. What we are talking about here is estimating the relative risk of various behaviours and making a judgement as to what level of risk is acceptable.

Lets imagine three ways you could behave on any given day and look at their relative risks by making some, I think, reasonable assumptions.

  1. Staying at home
  2. Going for a walk in the park observing 2m distancing
  3. Sunbathing in the park observing 3m distancing from other sunbathers

Staying at home is the least risky behaviour but that delivery from Tesco could be contaminated. The risk is very small but my point is the risk isn’t zero. It isn’t “safe”.

During your walk in the park you will be well separated from others most of the time but when you pass people or stop to chat even when 2m apart there is a chance of virus particles passing between you. The risk is small, that’s why the government says stay 2m apart but, again, the risk isn’t zero and it is significantly higher than staying at home

Now lets look at Sunbathing. 3m separation must be “safer” than 2m right? Well yes the relative risk of transferring virus at 3m is lower than 2m but there are other factors in play here.

  1. Time. You are likely to spend much, much, longer sunbathing than most people will spend having a walk. Increasing the time increases the risk
  2. Numbers. You will probably be surrounded by other sunbathers. If they form an efficient hexagonal be-hive grid you will spend that longer time surrounded by six other people. Even a less efficient grid means you will be surrounded by at least four other sunbathers

The effects of increased time and increased numbers more than make up for the increasing the social distance to 3m and the end result is that sunbathing behaviour is considerably more risky than just going for a walk.

You will notice that I have not used numbers, I’m not qualified to make this analysis quantitative but I hope it makes sense none the less.

The Government however has first-class statisticians and scientists who can and do put in the numbers. That is what they are doing when they talk about modelling.

So what they (government) are actually doing is ranking behaviours by relative risk.

[Least Risky]     HOME  —–>  WALK  —–>  SUNBATHE    [Most Risky]

And making a judgement that the risk of a walk is outweighed by the benefits but the risk of sunbathing is not. You might not agree but that is their judgement. And although it is not an exact science, lets be honest, they are much more likely to be right than you or me.

So maybe don’t go sunbathing no matter how tempting it is. You will likely just end up getting the park closed and making things worse for everyone.

ADDENDUM

My son pointed out that, in his opinion, closing the park is a bad overreaction to sunbathing and football. I completely agree with him. The point of this article is that sunbathing 3m apart is more risky than taking a walk and that the reaction probably will be parks closing, not that the reaction should be parks closing.

Other measures that keep spaces open but prevent people upping the risk too much should be taken. I’m no expert but some that spring to mind are:

  • One way systems to reduce close contact at entrances and exits
  • Advising people that 2m is the minimum separation required not the “safe” one
  • Possibly rota-ing to allow access at different time slots for different groups

I think lobbying councils, MPs etc to improve management of open spaces is an excellent idea.

But sunbathing cos you think you know better than them probably isn’t

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