Dr William Bird’s reflections on 15 months of living with COVID

As most of us foresaw, the so-called “freedom day” has been slightly delayed with a four-week pause for the moment on restrictions being eased. While we hope that the numbers will fall, I thought I would pause for a moment to reflect on what it has been like living through the COVID pandemic.

It has certainly been one of the strangest years in the history of general practice which has at times, seem to have flown by. It’s been a time that has really demonstrated the incredible staff in the NHS and in social care who have put their lives on the line to help people day after day.

Whilst it is absolutely right to remember them and the families and friends of those who have sadly lost their lives to COVID, we should also recognise those of us who have seen lockdown as an opportunity to review our lifestyles and to rethink the way we will build back in a way that will make us all healthier and happier.

When the country first locked down in March 2020 and we began a new life of working and learning from home. Many people didn’t leave the house at all, and quite rightly, just wanted to hunker down with a box set. I campaigned for the government to enable people to get out daily for an hour of exercise – plus when things settled down slightly – for unlimited exercise as it became apparent that it was so important to get the message out that a healthy weight and regular exercise were vital in the fight against COVID.

I would like to thank schools, community groups, employers and amateur sports clubs but most of all families, who embraced the importance of exercising and keeping physically active during the pandemic. By October 2020, according to figures from Road Safety GB, the number of people walking had increased by 39% and cycling had risen by 38%, while the Bicycle Association said the sale of bikes increased 63% year-on-year in 2020.

The way the country has embraced physical activity during lockdown represents a shift in cultural thinking and a behavioural change which is required to combat historic high levels of inactivity amongst our young people and those in disadvantaged communities who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. It is a sobering thought that even prior to COVID-19, four million children in the UK were doing less than the 60 minutes a day of exercise prescribed by the Chief Medical Officer with 2.3 million children doing less than 30 minutes a day.

The pandemic has given us all an opportunity to change our mindset towards the importance of keeping active and feeling well and it is critical that we maintain that momentum as vaccines enable us to start moving out of COVID-19 restrictions and we don’t fall back into bad habits that put ourselves at risk of serious illness.

However, evidence suggests there is certainly more work to be done to tackle health inequalities. Those from high-income households increased their time spent keeping fit by 36% during lockdown compared with 2015 according to the ONS (the most recent pre-pandemic data). In contrast, people from low-income households spent the same amount of time on fitness as before.

Another encouraging unintended consequence of lockdown is that as well as cultivating a more positive relationship with exercise, there has been a resurgent reconnection with nature.

Along with the rise in outdoor exercise, people’s interest in nature surged. In May 2020, 36% of people responding to the People and Nature Survey by Natural England said they were spending more time outside during the pandemic than before. This rose to 46% in July 2020.

The summer saw the country rekindle our love of the countryside, parks and our beautiful coastline. For example, visits to and time spent in parks in Cornwall increased by 280% between the start of the year and September, with similar patterns in Devon, Norfolk and East Yorkshire. (https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/howhaslockdownchangedourrelationshipwithnature/2021-04-26)

It has been a life-long passion of mine to encourage as many people as possible to improve their physical and mental health by becoming more active, from helping to create Health Walks to Green Gym and now the Beat the Street game which encourages people of all ages to get active. We’ve just come to the end of games in Hamilton and Blantyre, Derby and Rotherham and are currently playing in Barnsley, Leicester, Wokingham plus Sheffield begins this week!

We could not have held these games without the enthusiastic support and long-term vision of the public health teams in these areas, plus our funding from Sport England via the National Lottery. Thank you to everyone who has helped us launch Beat the Street this year — we really couldn’t have done it without you.

Feedback has been so positive for these Beat the Street games which have really helped people feel safer about getting back outdoors to exercise. It’s helped children get outdoors again, after a tough year of being kept at home, and has enabled families to spend time together improving both their physical and mental health, exploring the green spaces in their hometowns. People have reported that they loved the fact that Beat the Street has told them what they can do instead of what they can’t do. People have been so anxious and are relieved to be given a safe way to be active in their community.

There is certainly more work to be done to level the playing field when it comes to health inequalities but since lockdown, Beat the Street has helped more than 100,000 people to become more active and in particular, has encouraging those who are less likely to get outside. We will strive to continue to work with and support local communities up and down the country.

I’ll leave you with this lovely message we had from a player from Derby who has symptoms of Long Covid. She said: “It has most definitely helped the whole family get out and exercise more. My eldest daughter only learned to ride her bike during first lockdown and has now been doing five-to-six-mile bike rides for Beat the Street. Everything we do revolves around planning a route to get as many Beat Boxes in as possible. It’s certainly helping my long Covid rehab and also we have found places in our own village that I never knew existed! An amazing initiative and I hope it returns to Derby soon.”

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