Lockdown blues? Here’s a prescription from Dr John Muir...

As lockdown fatigue begins to bite, and politicians north and south of the border wrestle with the various ways in which the current restrictions could safely be lifted, the words of the great sage and mountain man John Muir come ringing down the decades like a seductive siren call: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

"Wildness is a necessity" - John Muir PIC: Roger Cox
"Wildness is a necessity" - John Muir PIC: Roger Cox

The lucky few who happen to live within easy striking distance of Scotland’s wild places have been fortunate indeed, these last few weeks; for them, lockdown will have meant being able to enjoy their favourite haunts in peace and quiet during what must surely be one of the most spectacular runs of good weather in living memory. For those lovers of the great outdoors who live in urban areas, however – and that means the vast majority – each new cloudless day will have felt like another wasted opportunity. Walking, running or cycling around your local park is fine as a means of keeping the body healthy, but the same could be said of exercising while in prison. Neither of these things nourish the human spirit like getting out into the kinds of places Muir would have described as “fountains of life.”

Obviously there are many far more pressing things for politicians to worry about just now – the feasibility of reopening schools and businesses, the measures that would need to be put in place for public transport to operate effectively, the list goes on. However, the importance of people’s mental health should not be underestimated. The nation has been patient – certainly more patient than some of those advising the government expected it to be – but inevitably people are now starting to become, as Muir might have put it, a little “nerve-shaken.”

Judging by the noises coming out of Downing Street and Bute House recently, any major alterations to the status quo are still weeks if not months away and expectations are already being carefully managed: change, we are told, is likely to be incremental. To prevent the nation from collapsing into a collective slough of despond, then, when the new governmental guidelines are published it might be helpful if they contained at least a few measures aimed at improving general wellbeing, alongside those aimed at boosting economic activity.

One way in which ministers could grant people a little more freedom while still minimising the risk of a second spike in coronavirus infections might be to extend the distance it is permitted to travel for exercise. The current guidelines regarding exercise are to “stay local and use open spaces near to your home where possible – do not travel unnecessarily.” But what if, as part of a first phase of relaxing restrictions, people were permitted to travel, say, 50 miles from their home, once a week, for one day only, in order to exercise outdoors? That would put people living in Glasgow within reach of the Campsie Fells and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, and Edinburgh residents within striking distance of a big chunk of the Southern Uplands and the coasts of East Lothian and Berwickshire. Residents of Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness, meanwhile, would have access to much of the east coast and vast swathes of the Cairngorms National Park.

People undertaking such journeys could be asked to maintain all the usual social distancing procedures, to take all their food and drink with them and to fuel their cars as near to their point of origin as possible. And to avoid overcrowding at the weekends, those on furlough, retired or otherwise able to take their “day out” during the week could be encouraged to do so.

Such an arrangement would have its drawbacks: for a start, only around 70 per cent of Scots have access to a car, so it wouldn’t be much use to the other 30 per cent without a functioning public transport network. It would also be open to abuse – if someone decided they wanted to stray 51 miles from home, and to do so twice a week, nobody would be any the wiser.

Improving the mental health of 70 per cent of people is still 70 per cent better than nothing, though, and sooner or later corona-proof public transport solutions will have to be found. And in terms of people abusing the system, well, a few almost certainly would. Judging by the extent to which people have abided by the existing restrictions, though, it seems likely that the vast majority would stick to the script – particularly as everyone would be painfully aware that a second spike in cases could take us right back to where we are now.