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11 January 2021updated 25 Jul 2021 11:46am

The real problem with Boris Johnson’s bike ride seven miles from Downing Street

As with the two women fined for walking in Derbyshire, the Prime Minister was not breaking the law – exposing the gap between government rules and rhetoric.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Boris Johnson was spotted cycling in the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, yesterday, according to an exclusive report by the Evening Standard.

At around 2pm on Sunday afternoon, according to the report, the Prime Minister was cycling in the park in the London borough of Newham, in a TfL-branded hat and face mask, accompanied by security officials also on bikes.

This park is seven miles from Johnson’s home in Downing Street, and there are questions circling about the trip. The PM is “under pressure to explain” the journey according to the Guardian, the Daily Mirror points out that “as well as Downing Street’s large, private garden, the Prime Minister has access to the grounds of Buckingham Palace – where he runs and takes Dilyn, his dog, for walks”, and his spokesperson was asked about it at a Downing Street briefing for journalists earlier today (giving no answer).

[Hear more from Anoosh on The New Statesman Podcast]

According to a source quoted in the Standard, Johnson was exercising, and reported back on his experience during a Sunday night meeting with cabinet members – expressing concern about how busy the park was.

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The problem here isn’t that Johnson was breaking rules. Legally, there is no limit to the distance individuals can travel for exercise, and they are allowed to go out to do so.

The real issue is the gap between guidance, government communications and the actual regulations. Government guidance states that exercise “should be limited to once per day, and you should not travel outside your local area” – but this is vague and is not underpinned by the letter of the law: neither the definition of “local area” nor the “once per day” stipulations appear in legislation.

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This gap creates a breakdown in public trust, and frustration among police officers and others tasked with upholding the lockdown restrictions. Johnson’s bike ride jars with other ministers’ messaging – the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, for example, “backs” Derbyshire police officers’ decision three days ago to fine two women walking five miles from their home: the penalties are now being reviewed and the police force has effectively conceded it made the wrong judgement.

During the original lockdown last year, there were similar problems with overzealous policing and confusion between the law and the guidance, which the New Statesman covered at the time. It seems the government has not learned a vital lesson in communications from the first lockdown, leading to awkward questions for Johnson and those ministers who have been encouraging the police to take a tough approach.