Why do pictures of busy outdoor pubs still trigger panic about Covid-19?

We know that outdoor transmission is essentially non-existent, so why are images of people distancing in beer gardens met with sneering online?

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There have only been a handful of moments during the pandemic when something has cut through my brain fog and made me realise that, actually, what we’re living through is nuts; apocalyptic by any standard pre-2020. These epiphanies tend to come out of nowhere – counting the days since I’ve seen my family, or watching a reality show reworked around distancing rules – but one of the first and most powerful times I experienced this sensation was late on “Super Saturday” on 4 July 2020when images of people in Soho in central London began going viral. 

I had spent the first four months of the pandemic in rural Scotland, living with my partner’s parents in the middle of nowhere, and had returned to London the Friday before. The pictures were, following this isolated experience, terrifying. I could hear people partying two streets away from my flat for hours into the night. After all the time we’ve sacrificed, I thought, why would the government blow it by letting people get close and spread the virus at a rapid pace?

A week before, a similar set of images not only went viral, but were plastered across the front pages of broadsheets. “A major incident has been declared” headlines read after “huge crowds flocked” to beaches in Bournemouth, Southend, and Poole. Bournemouth council leader Vikki Slade said she was “absolutely appalled” at the scenes. 

But weeks after these images had been seared into our minds – when I presumed we’d begin to see a spike in cases – nothing had happened. This was the beginning of a national learning experience: that outdoor transmission, while still possible, was effectively non-existent. 

We now know that the few cases of outdoor transmission occurred when people came into very close contact with each other (in some cases touching) for sustained periods of time; or when they mixed indoors as well as outdoors (meaning the time outdoors may not have caused the transmission at all). The risk is especially small in wide open spaces, such as a field or a long beach. The sun’s ultraviolet light also kills most Covid particles that manage to hang around out in the open. This science has become common knowledge after a year of transmission happening almost exclusively indoors.

Or, so I thought. Ten months on from the images at Bournemouth beach, and nine months on from Soho, the same panic and moral scolding has happened again, after people were allowed back into beer gardens in England on Monday (12 April). Videos of pub-goers sitting, distanced, on the street were met with predictable sneering, predominantly focusing on the clichéd idea that “irresponsible” young people were going to send us back into another lockdown after their “reckless” behaviour this week. 

Everything we know about how people in the UK behave in the pandemic shows that these characterisations of young people’s behaviour are misguided. A survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released this month found that compliance among young people was high, while an ONS survey from March found that more than 40 per cent of over-80s had broken lockdown rules after getting their first jab. A recent survey from YouGov also showed that a majority of young people believed they would likely continue to follow the rules as restrictions began to ease – a trend consistent across every single age group, rather than showing under-30s were taking a lax approach. 

This, coupled with the science and stats around outdoor transmission, should mean that these pictures of people drinking outdoors show nothing to fear. So why do they still cause alarm? 

Such images bring back the intense feelings we had when they first began to appear last summer. Most people didn’t know then that outdoor gatherings wouldn’t lead to further outbreaks, while the government continued to tell us that eating in a restaurant or meeting indoors was perfectly safe if people were distanced (something we now know to be untrue). For a year, we were conditioned to believe aggressive sanitation and plenty of space was all that was necessary to avoid catching anything. And we were also encouraged – by the government, the media, or friends online – to see crowded beaches as the poster images of viral spread and pandemic irresponsibility. 

So now, even with this understanding, our instincts trigger those old responses: panic, fear, and an overwhelming lack of control – responses that are largely not our fault. On the flipside, an image of a sparsely filled restaurant, with perspex barriers and waiters in face shields, might yield the opposite: calm, and a sense of safety. We were taught to demonise people drinking in the park, but to not think twice about friends sat around at a dinner party.

But now we know better. Instead of shaming strangers on the internet for safe outdoor gatherings, we should try to correct our reaction to these images – and accept that our gut instinct doesn’t always align with what’s safe. 

Sarah Manavis is a senior writer at the New StatesmanSign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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