A group of experts have called on the UK government to support people cycling outside during the coronavirus pandemic.
The current advice from authorities is for UK residents to avoid “non-essential” travel and contact with others, but there is no official lockdown like in Spain and Italy.
Some have suggested that riding outdoors puts cyclists at risk of crashes and injury, which would cause increased strain on the NHS during the Covid-19 crisis.
In Spain, cyclists face fines and even arrest for taking the bike outside during the lockdown as police try to cut down on the demands on the emergency services.
But a group of 32 researchers, including university professors and representatives from charities Cycling UK and Sustrans, have signed an open letter calling on the government to support people cycling and walking, because they can help combat the health risks of social distancing.
The letter said: “Confinement, sometimes in overcrowded accommodation with little or no private green space, and particularly during times of anxiety has health risks.
“Physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, several cancers, dementia, and diabetes. These conditions affect millions of people; and some increase the risk of a serious outcome if one contracts Covid-19. Walking and cycling, particularly in greenspace, is good for mental as well as physical health. People should be encouraged to exercise at home, but for most of us it is unlikely that this will replace the walking and cycling we do outdoors.”
The government have encouraged people to exercise because of the positive impact on wellbeing, but has not given any specific guidance on cycling outside.
Dr Kate Hattersley, who works with charity Cycling UK, said: “There is no reason for you to stop cycling at present but make sure to do so at a safe distance from others. Visits to cafes and pubs should be avoided to limit exposure to infection. You should carry tissues to use when cycling, disposing of them safely in a bin as soon as possible. If you do visit a food outlet, you must wash your hands before and after visiting, and again on returning home.”
In their open letter, the researchers said authorities should ensure parks and green spaces are kept open and that emergency infrastructure should be introduced to make cycling and walking safer, while evidence-based guidance should published for cyclists and walkers on reducing risk when continuing their exercise.
The letter said: “Social distancing will make many sports and gym based exercise impossible. However, walking and cycling can be compatible with social distancing, if people are responsible. Transmission risks will be very low if people stay 2-3 metres apart.
“For shopping, and for those who still need to commute, walking and cycling should be supported. We see wide variation across Europe in policies towards walking and cycling, with some countries explicitly encouraging cycling and others effectively banning it; and some closing green space to walkers.
“Thus we call on decision makers to protect the right to walk and cycle safely (from risk of infection and traffic injury) for those who are not symptomatic.”