After months of lockdown, the government announced last week that some restrictions would be lifted. People in England from different households are now allowed to meet in groups of six in an outdoor space, while maintaining a two-metre distance if in public. After weeks of a ban that limited time outdoors, this marked one of the biggest changes to the social distancing rules that have been in place since late March. It came as euphoric news for many.
However, to anyone living in a shared property, the easing of the lockdown may be a cause for concern. There are around 497,000 Houses of Multiple Occupancies (HMOs) in England and Wales – mostly found in cities – and an end to social distancing poses far greater risk to their residents, compared to those who live in smaller family homes or isolated areas. Those living in shared properties may see their homes go from holding the germs of four people, to 24 other households' as each housemate ventures outside to visit different groups of family and friends. Indeed many experts – and today, the Labour leader Keir Starmer – have criticised the government for loosening the lockdown restrictions too quickly, warning of a second wave of coronavirus infections.
This isn't the first time that the government's coronavirus guidelines have failed to take city dwellers into account. From rules limiting park visits to the impossibility of self-isolating if you live in a house share, the Tories' response to coronavirus hits people living in urban areas the hardest. Those who are more likely to reside in cities – young adults and BAME people (according to the 2011 census, the ethnic groups most likely to live in urban areas were Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black African) – face greater limitations and risks as they attempt to navigate the pandemic.
Here are some of the lockdown rules that are particularly hard to follow if you live in a city.
Self-isolate if you have the virus
One of the first coronavirus rules implemented by the government (even though, er, not everyone stuck to it) was to self-isolate at home if you have the virus. The government guidelines state: “If you have symptoms of coronavirus, however mild, or you have received a positive coronavirus test result, the clear medical advice is to immediately self-isolate at home for at least seven days from when your symptoms started.”
For those in properties with communal bathrooms and kitchens – such as student accommodation or house shares – this advice is extremely hard to follow. Although Pubic Health England (PHE) published a blog on how to self-isolate in a shared house, the solutions are far from perfect. It advises cleaning the entire bathroom every time you use it – hardly a simple task for someone suffering from the symptoms of COVID.
Only go outside for exercise
When the lockdown began on the 23rd of March, government guidelines said that you should only go outside to exercise. For many in city homes without gardens or balconies, these guidelines were particularly restrictive. Some parks in London were forced to close due to overcrowding, which meant that residents had no access to outdoor space.
Don’t take public transport, but go to work if you can
On the 11th of May, Boris Johnson announced changes to the lockdown, telling Brits to, “work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.” In the same speech, Johnson also encouraged people to “avoid public transport if at all possible.”
After the speech, many city residents were confused about how to safely get to work without using public transport. Indeed, just a day after the announcement, worrying photos were released of overcrowded tubes and buses in London.
Lower-paid workers are often displaced to the outer edges of cities, and rely on public transport to travel to their place of work. This is especially true in London, where the ongoing housing crisis makes it almost impossible to find affordable housing in Zone 1 or 2. If you don't own a car and need to commute into the centre of town for work, you have no choice but to put your health at risk by using public transport.
Groups of six can meet
On the 31st of May, Johnson made his announcement allowing people from different households to meet in groups of six, while observing the two-metre rule if in a public place. This amendment to the lockdown means that people who share their home are at greater risk of exposure to infection from households that their housemates or flatmates come into contact with.
The pandemic was always going to hit cities the hardest
Britain has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in Europe and the government’s response to the virus has been highly criticised. Many coronavirus cases occurred in London, which was until recently the country's coronavirus hotspot, with 2,200 excess deaths registered at the mid-April peak.
While government decisions may have contributed to this, cities were never designed with pandemics in mind. Due to the overcrowded way in which people in cities live and the necessary sharing of outdoor public space, lockdown guidelines were always going to be harder to follow in urban areas – particularly the capital.
“Who would have ever imagined this when these places are being planned and built?” says Kath Scanlon, a distinguished policy fellow specialising in comparative housing policy at London School of Economics. “Yes, there's a requirement for planning legislation that there has to be green space and playgrounds, but the idea that everybody would be wanting to use this green space at the same time but couldn't be close to each to other – it wouldn't have ever occurred to anybody.”
As a result, it’s very hard to manage a pandemic in cities: “Most young people who are not living with their parents are living in shared accommodation, so how does that work when nobody is allowed to leave the house and go to work?” Scanlon says. “It would have been impossible to predict that these homes were being asked to perform this function.”
The important thing, Scanlon says, is to prepare better for next time.
“Everyone involved in urban policy is thinking about these questions," says Scanlon. "What's there already is what we're going to have for as long as we live, so how do we modify what we have already so that it works better?