COVID-19: Blurred Spatial Boundaries?

The social, economic and environmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to the UK Government issuing instructions for members of the public to ‘stay at home’ with limited exceptions for shopping, exercise, medical need, and essential travel for work purposes. These directions are supported by Regulations that restrict the operation of public meeting places (or Third Places) including restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas and gyms. The guidelines for entering a public space, and the maintenance of a 2 metres distance from other individuals not of the same household, pose fresh questions about blurred spatial boundaries.

These new socio-spatial rules create issues around enforcement and tolerance. Members of the public are being encouraged to police each other’s use of public space through specific reporting systems in which lockdown breaches can be flagged to the police. The numbers of reports have been so high that police forces have instead been asking members of the public to personally challenge neighbours over non-compliant use of space. Tensions and disputes as to what constitutes a ‘genuine’ reason for meeting the limited exceptions for entering a public space have been seen in social media. So called ‘covidiots’ have been named and shamed and there has been public condemnation for groups gathering on Westminster Bridge, including police officers, to ‘clap for carers’. Paradoxically, another example has seen an individual named and shamed for not being present in public to clap for carers, highlighting the narrowing expectations over the ‘correct’ way to utilise public space during this time.

More formally, the police have been granted new powers to ensure the use of public space complies with the government regulations, which has resulted in Fixed Penalty Notice fines being issued. However, confusion about what constitutes reasonable use and proportionate police action has been seen. There has been an abundance of well-publicised examples involving both public places and private spaces. In some instances, this has resulted in retroactive apologies on the part of those conducting and overseeing the enforcement, for perhaps being too overzealous in their approach to interpreting the guidelines. For instance, reports have been made that the police were intending to inspect individual’s shopping trolleys to see whether the purchases were a justifiable excuse not to ‘stay at home’. Similarly the Government has recently made it clear that parks must remain open for exercise, but not for other forms of social behaviour such as picnics or sunbathing. One Council went so far as to tape up the benches to discourage prolonged use of the space.

Notions of public space have always had a contentious history, with contestation over access, inclusion/exclusion and classed notions of ‘appropriate’ use. Under current regulations however, we now see new expectations over how and in what ways these spaces are used and new social divisions emerging relating to those who comply and those who do not. As national attention now turns towards a lockdown exit strategy, it will be interesting to observe how individuals re-adapt to any new regulations and test the boundaries of any changes to ‘acceptable’ social interactions in public spaces.

The Government has set out five key tests that need to be satisfied in order to trigger an easing of the current lockdown restrictions. In the meantime, various proposals are being made as to potential routes back to some form of normality. To help appease concerns about  future waves of new cases, whilst also avoiding instances of blurred spatial boundaries (as highlighted above),  we recommend the need for clear Government guidance to be issued and communicated to help inform enforcers’ and users’ navigation of public spaces in this new era.


Benjamin Archer, Dr Alex Black, Dr Jill Dickinson and Dr Vicky Heap



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