Is it too late to save the rural economy?

It is very clear that the government’s lockdown policies are no longer about protecting the NHS which has ample capacity and is now failing people in many other ways as a result of the fear instilled by the handling of the Covid-19 crisis. On those grounds, one might question why lockdown rules remain in place at all.

However, my argument here concerns a lack of rural proofing of the government’s actions.  The latest delays on re-opening parts of the leisure sector and the communication of new restrictions across Lancashire and Yorkshire suggest that no consideration has been given to distinctive rural issues nor to the urban-rural variation in rates of spread or risks to human health. Data from Centre for Towns identifying the rapidly escalating job losses and fears about the future of our graduates are surely more alarming?

The last-minute reversal of plans to allow closely managed access to sporting events has been devastating for their respective industries, just as the quarantine rule changes have for the international travel sector.  The knock on effects have seen other smaller events cancelled simply through fear. They may sound small and trivial but ceramics fairs such as the one in Southwell , whose cancellation was announced this weekend, are vital for networking, connecting with customers and orienting the work of a number of very small producers whose businesses may now fail. Some agricultural shows have attempted to operate online but these have been unable to recreate the retailing opportunities that are so important for many rural craft businesses.

In business, we all know that uncertainty is the biggest obstacle to firms getting back on track. Sudden decisions informed by the science of small numbers and with insufficient attention to regional difference must be challenged on grounds of being disproportionate and failing to weigh up multiple socio-economic impacts.  As restrictions eased, businesses invested in ways to reopen safely so they must be given the chance to earn back that investment with the confidence that if they stick to the rules, they can make plans for the future.

There is, perhaps, just time to save tens of thousands of jobs by easing lockdown measures and maintaining the support and cooperation of businesses who are working so hard to keep trading AND to keep people safe.  If these business go to the wall, BOTH the economy and the safety measures employed by businesses will be lost and the result will see poorer-managed and less safe activities taking place across the country – whether that is 1,000s of anonymous people packed on trains to the coast, as we saw last weekend, or growing civil unrest in the face of economic hardship and social breakdown.

I urge the government, and everyone who wants to help our young people, to take action before it is too late.

Time to reopen village playgrounds

While this post is clouded by personal views, it is also a reflection about how external (urban) views about rural places directly impacts our lives and communities.

Most of our town and city parks have remained opened throughout the Lockdown (albeit with play equipment and other facilities closed) to provide much needed space for exercise and the therapeutic benefit that green space provides. However, in smaller villages, there is often only a playground and their closure is increasingly detrimental to the social, physical and emotional detriment wellbeing of young children.  I am not exaggerating – my son actually cries if we walk past it (so I try to avoid those routes) and he asks us every night when he can go to the playground again.

There is perhaps a mistaken assumption that all of the countryside is one big “playground”.  From an urban perspective, this is quite understandable as their interaction with rural places is principally for recreation and the enjoyment of nature and the escape of the city environment.  There are many areas around Britain that fulfil such roles but these equate to just a tiny proportion of rural England.   It is quite sensible to leave the larger attractions closed for a little longer as they will pose a greater risk due to the scale of visitor numbers from a range of origins but this should not cloud the decision-making concerning smaller local attractions and village-based amenities that serve a relatively small number of people from a tightly-bounded area.

The sad irony for many villagers is that without playgrounds and sports-fields they do not have access to safe spaces for playing outdoors.  I have been driving 5 miles to a nearby park to allow my son the freedom and space to run around, something that he cannot do along a country lane, farm track or in our small garden.  I believe this is within the rules but with our village playground reopened, it would be unnecessary. For those adhering strictly to the “no non-essential travel” rules, they have been able to take advantage of the quieter village roads and heightened awareness of drivers that have resulted from lockdown.  As Britain gets back to work, many of these exercise routes will become more dangerous and very young children will not be afforded the same freedom to cycle or run along our village paths.  A lot of the most remote rural villages have very few pavements and while the landscape is aesthetically appealing, it is of course not open access to all.

Therefore, on the grounds on urban-rural equality and for children living in rural areas without million-pound mansions and the equivalent garden, duck ponds and swimming pools enjoyed by a tiny elite, PLEASE RE-OPEN OUR LOCAL PLAYGROUNDS.

Slightly more detail on the regional impacts of Covid-19


ONS data has revealed that total deaths in England and Wales in week 14 this year (week ending 3rd April) were 16,387, an increase of 6,082 on the 5 year average of 10,305.  This was the first occasion that the average death toll in England and Wales has exceeded the 5 year average since mid-January.  The ONS reports that these are heavily concentrates in London, with hotspots in the North-West and West Midlands too.

Nationally, the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 in the week ending 3rd April was 3,475. This raises a serious concern about the causes of the additional 2,607 deaths.

A total of 2,367 deaths during the reporting week were attributed to influenza and pneumonia which could be undiagnosed Covid-19 but this figure is only 303 higher that the equivalent 5-year average for similarly deaths (2,064) so this is not the answer.  How do we explain the 2,000+ additional deaths?

Breaking this down to the regional scale, using my own calculations of average weekly death rates from the past 5 years of data provided by ONS gives the following comparable death rates for the week 14, which was the first full week of lockdown in the UK, ending on 3rd April 2020:

The right hand column compared the increase in non-Covid-19 deaths with the increase in Covid-19 deaths.  Where it is coloured red, this indicates that a greater increase in deaths resulting from FACTORS OTHER THAN COVID-19 than from Covid-19 itself. In two regions, for every 10 deaths resulting from Covid-19, we are seeing more than 15 additional lives lost which would not be lost in a normal year.

At this stage, the assumption is that people who did not die of Covid-19 are in the “Non-Covid” category. This is where we need to introduce Government Statistics of people dying who tested positive with the virus but for whom it was not their registered cause of death.

In the same week, government data for deaths associated with Covid-19, a broader measure, returned higher toll by a total of 470 losses of life. If we reduce the non-Covid death rate in line with this so as not to mis-attribute these case, an adjusted set of figures is shown below. 


Covid Deaths

Increase in non-covid19 deaths compared to 5yr averages (adjusted)

Increase in non-covid deaths for every 10 covid deaths

North East




North West




Yorkshire & Humber




East Midlands




West Midlands












South East




South West








We have to recognise that the government dataset has faced additional criticism for missing deaths at home and in care homes so this too is expected to overstate the proportion of non-Covid deaths.  Nevertheless the important point that there are strong regional variations, which we would expect to be greater at more localised scales, adding weight to calls for a regional relaxation of lockdown to save lives.  As more detailed information is provided from ONS, we urgently need to identify whether the additional deaths are unreported Covid-19 consequences or other consequences of the state imposed lockdown.




Are calls to end the Lockdown really just expressions of right wing capitalist greed?


Reading Twitter this morning, there appears to be a political divide between those who call for a relaxation to lockdown and those who accuse right wing marketeers for insensitive, thoughtless greed.

There is undoubtedly some truth in this but it is far too simplistic.  There are deeper class-based and geographical differences too.  Big businesses calling for their staff to go back to work to get profits up again is pretty unacceptable, especially where these people will be in personal danger and their activities can significantly increase the spread of the virus.  On the other hand, small businesses with one or two staff and very limited social interaction could surely get going again soon.  These businesses are currently dependent on the banks sorting out loans in time to stay afloat – it’s not a case of greed but of survival for the business and their families.

A further distinction could be drawn between densely populated areas with high rates of Covid-19 case and sparsely populated areas where the risks of contracting the virus are lower, and the risk of multiple exposures or a high viral load are especially low. Allowing a few households to interact with each other, or allowing a small class of children to return to school in a relatively insular community should be quite reasonable.  Again – this is far away from the “greedy capitalist” accusations levied at those calling for a relaxation of lockdown.  However, it does show that the voices of those in small businesses and in smaller communities are often less well represented.

A regional approach to relaxing lockdown, where families and small community groups can reconnect can help to overcome the mental health concerns and where small businesses can get up and running as soon as possible needs to happen quickly.  This will help to reduce the phenomenal economic costs that will follow but, most importantly, also help those small businesses whose recovery is likely to be most challenging, get a head start on the big businesses who will be geared up for a  swift return to normal at all costs. 

Reports that up to 150,000 deaths could be caused by an extended lockdown are currently being ignored.  While this does sound excessive, the knock on effects are not insignificant.  Aside from poverty and unemployment, loss of education will have long term impacts, especially for children where their home environment is not supportive for home-education and isolation will have significant social and mental health implications – the duration of which cannot be known.  Add to this all of the other medical treatments and diagnoses (especially early cancer testing) that are being side-lined and we are not simply weighing up virus prevention with economic greed, but with a whole range of societal impacts. 

Coronavirus or the economy…a stark choice?

Debate is intensifying about the need for a measured response to controlling the spread of coronavirus that will allow economic recovery without long term damage to society.  I argue here that it is not just about when but how a gradual return of normal life can be rolled out across Britain.

As we are starting to see in Italy, wholesale lockdown will not be tolerated for weeks on end.  Even if the government’s support packages are generous and comprehensive enough to bridge the financial hardship, there will be large numbers of people in society who begin to fight back against lengthy oppression.  That’s not to mention the injustice facing those unable to access other health care and essential services at this time.

The riots in summer 2011 were, according to reports in the Guardian, almost inevitable given the prevailing conditions with a “tinderbox of economic and social tensions”. No-one would suggest that those social inequalities have gone away and current events are increasing unemployment once again.  Those on precarious contracts are likely to be particularly hard hit.  With lockdown, add to this increasing boredom, household tensions, anxiety and testosterone build-up among young men along with a lot of unoccupied retail premises and a new “tinderbox” is again present in many urban neighbourhoods.

It would be easy then to argue, and several commentators have done, that we should revert to “business as usual” as soon as possible and accept that a few more people that usual will die.  The problem with this argument is not one of “saving lives” vs “saving the economy” though – given the events that have already taken place the economy cannot just be turned back on.  As Jonathan Portes wrote in the Guardian (25/2/20) even if we were all allowed to return to work, “many or most of us would, quite rationally, choose not to, for fear of catching the virus”.  Without a degree of confidence and certainty, both about personal finances and the wider economy, Portes continues: “households won’t spend and businesses won’t invest. And that simply isn’t going to happen until the spread of the diseases has been contained”.

However, is there an alternative way of thinking about this problem?  Does the UK have to follow one set of regulations everywhere and at all scales?  As geographers we always talk about scale and as someone who studies regional and rural economies, I want to advocate a localised approach to relaxing the restrictions currently in place.  There are, in my mind, 4 strong justifications for this:

  1. The virus spread much less quickly in rural areas.  This phenomenon has been reported in Southern Italy and data from the shows that there are roughly half as many cases per head in rural districts compared to urban areas UK (further updated Defra figures to follow). Break this down to lower scale of geography and we can be fairly confident that the difference would be even greater. Recent reports suggest a higher “viral load” also increases the risk to human life, and in densely populated urban areas, exposure to multiple sources of the infection, and potentially to slightly different strains simultaneously, is also higher.
  2. In rural areas, isolation and loneliness among older generations was one of the biggest health concerns up until a few weeks ago.  Despite the great efforts of many communities to help isolated and vulnerable people, the mental health impacts will increase the longer the lockdown continues.  If restrictions on local services and amenities are relaxed for those within small communities, it should be possible for social engagement, and low-level economic activity to return whilst social distancing continues to be observed.  Even village schools could potentially reopen sooner so as not to impact the social and educational development of young children.   In all of these cases, the social mixing would be limited to local communities and not a widespread inter-mixing of different groups of people.  Together, such localised re-openings would allow home-workers to become more productive, allow the self-employed and small businesses to keep ticking over, reduce isolation and actually build on the positive responses of local community-focused activities of people trying to help others in responsible ways.  The fact that positive community responses to help those at risk are largely occurring at a local level highlights that despite our global society facilitated by multiple communications technologies, community-spirit is still “local” and place-based.
  3. The economic recovery will itself be uneven and businesses in rural and peripheral regions will have to work hard to rebuild their markets.  Currently, a lot of bigger businesses that already have well-developed retailing and other services will be improving their market share.  The longer-term effect of this on supply chains may see a number of rural firms falling further behind.  Allowing a regional relaxation of lockdown can enable these firms to re-establish local supply chains and start to serve local markets more quickly, before nationwide market competition returns.  Not all rural businesses can do this (e.g. rural tourism will inevitably lose a large share of annual income) but where it is possible, this could also stimulate shorter supply chains in the future and strengthen local economies and local business networks in the future.
  4. Looking further ahead, rural economies have the potential to deliver significant growth and to better support their local communities.  This requires spaces for interactions between disparate groups of people living and working in rural areas.  The current crisis sees these individuals coming together on social media to support their communities and as freedoms return, there is a real opportunity to capitalise on the new connections being made.  Home-workers, self-employed people and a range of small businesses all have a lot to offer their communities but so often they are segregated, each operating in their distinct professional network or social grouping.  Linking together the skills and activities that are taking place locally can see rural localities becoming more vibrant, lead to reduced commuting and stimulate a greater degree of local spending to sustain rural services.


At a time when large number of lives are being lost in our bigger cities and key workers are putting themselves in danger, these points may seem a little parochial to some.  Clearly, there are other priorities to tackle first but we have to plan for an end to the situation both to help people to keep conforming to the restrictions – a light at the end of the tunnel is essential for this – and to ensure that the aftermath of the lockdown is not worse than the current situation.

I don’t like the comparisons with war.  Limitations on personal freedom and the overriding fear of losing lives are of course similar but, in a time of war, lives are sacrificed for a belief in society whereas this emergency sees society put at risk to save lives.  Perhaps one useful comparison, though, is the idea that winning the peace is more important than winning the war.  If the end of restrictions and the containment of the virus leads to an uneven rate of recovery, poverty and social unrest could be just as big a fear as coronavirus itself.  We therefore need clear strategies for how, as well as when, a return of civil liberties and of economic activity can take place.