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The real story about Boris Johnson’s bike ride? It highlights confusion over lockdown rules

Police, politicians and the press struggle to understand rules – so no wonder the public does too

Boris Johnson’s weekend bike ride at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has been one of the dominant news stories in the UK since it was first reported yesterday afternoon, being the main item on the front page of at least three national newspapers and also being covered in depth by much of the broadcast media – but the real story is that it highlights the widespread confusion that remains not only among the general public, but also politicians and the press about what is and isn’t allowed under lockdown rules.

> Boris Johnson accused of breaking lockdown with Olympic Park bike ride – even though he did not appear to break law

The confusion seems to stem chiefly from the fact that government guidelines, which are not enforceable at law, differ from what is contained in the actual regulations – the former stating that exercise “should be limited to once per day, and you should not travel outside your local area,” supposed restrictions which are not mentioned at all in the actual legislation.

The distinction is not a trivial one; since England’s third national lockdown began last week, we’ve already seen police in Derbyshire rescind fines that had been wrongly issued by officers.

Those included fines of £200 imposed on two women who had met up to take a walk (as they are permitted to do under rules regarding exercise) but had each driven five miles to do so, the decision to withdraw the fixed penalty notices coming after updated guidance from the National Police Chiefs’ Council that the regulations “do not restrict the distance travelled for exercise.”                

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick initially declined to comment on Mr Johnson’s case this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, but when pressed said: “The public are looking to all of us as role models, for all of us in public life, if you like.

“What I can say is that it is not against the law. I think that’s implicit.”

> Cycling dos and don'ts in a time of pandemic – how to be a responsible cyclist

Policing Minister Kit Malthouse, meanwhile, asked on BBC Breakfast whether the Prime Minister had broken so-called rules on exercising locally, said: “Well, it depends where you are. Seven miles will be local in different areas.”

He added: “I think the key thing is that when people do go out, they maintain that social distancing, they go out for the purpose of exercise, or to get food, rather than trying to stretch the rules.”

Many news outlets continue to report the guidance as though it were the letter of the law, and while Sky News has today attempted to unravel what is and isn’t allowed in terms of exercise, it arguably fails to underline that what ultimately counts are the regulations.

And as barrister and law professor Adam Wagner highlighted on Twitter this morning, in England there have been no fewer than 65 revisions to the lockdown laws.

With the government itself saying, “The law is what you must do; the guidance might be a mixture of what you must do and what you should do," it is no wonder the public are confused.

Returning to the specifics of Mr Johnson’s case, many cyclists have pointed out on Twitter that seven miles is nothing when you’re riding a bike; even riding at a sedate pace and accounting for stopping at traffic lights and the like, the distance can be covered in well under an hour.

But given that when he was Foreign Secretary, Johnson was banned by his security detail from cycling on London’s streets, it seems highly unlikely that he would have ridden from Downing Street to the Olympic Park.

More probable is that he was driven there, and then jumped on a bike – his own, or one of the Santander Cycles popularly named after him, who knows? – and went for a spin.

Either way, Downing Street has declined to confirm one way or the other whether the Prime Minister pedalled under his own steam to the Olympic Park, or went there by car – again, adding to the confusion surrounding the story.

The London Evening Standard, which broke the news yesterday, reported that Mr Johnson was “seen cycling with his security detail in Stratford, east London,” other than mentioning that he was wearing a hat and mask, no further detail was provided.

There was no mention of where its information came from, although a spokesperson for Number Ten subsequently confirmed he had indeed been cycling in the park, and Sky News reported today that a woman who saw him there was “shocked to see him cycling around looking so care-free.”

She added: "Also, considering he's advising everyone to stay at home and not leave their area, shouldn't he stay in Westminster and not travel to other boroughs?"

It does seem curious, though, that in 2021 not a single photo of him riding a bike in the park appears to have been posted to social media.

One final point. Had Mr Johnson been walking or jogging in the park, rather than riding a bike, would it have attracted so much media attention? We suspect not.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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