Winter is coming. Game of Thrones fans know that this is a warning to prepare for dark times, and it has never been more apt than during the Covid pandemic.
Six months ago, Boris Johnson gave the nation a “simple instruction” – to stay at home to stop the spread of the disease. The weather that day in most of the country was pretty good for early spring – widespread sunshine after a frosty start, with a high of 15C.
Although we were restricted to one form of exercise outdoors each day, Britain’s parks, commons, woods and other green spaces saw a rush of walkers, runners, cyclists, yoga enthusiasts, kite-flyers and outdoor gym bunnies.
Later, as restrictions eased and temperatures rose, green spaces became places for (mostly) socially distanced gatherings – birthday parties, family reunions, picnics and barbecues. People took their laptops to the park during working hours, pubs sold drinks from open windows, and some faith organisations moved worship outdoors.
But now the days are shortening, temperatures dropping and Covid restrictions tightening. As winter approaches, will we retreat behind our front doors and hunker down against the virus, or will our spring and summer of outdoor living and socialising continue with the turn of the seasons?
“Absolutely yes, we should carry on with outdoor activities,” said Jenny Woodward, of the Centre for Health Promotion Research at Leeds Beckett University. “There is a huge amount of evidence of the positive effects on health and wellbeing of being outside. Connection to nature improves mood and lessens anxiety. And as the daylight decreases, it’s extra important to make sure we go out.”
Covid-19 is transmitted less easily outdoors. Being outside and engaging with nature is known to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Studies have shown that exposure to natural light boosts the immune system, improves mood and aids sleep.
One UK study, carried out by King’s College London in January 2018, found that exposure to trees, the sky and birdsong in cities improved mental wellbeing, with the benefits lasting hours after returning indoors.
Being outside could help people combat feelings of social isolation, said Catharine Ward Thompson of the OPENspace Research Centre at Edinburgh University. “Even nodding at your neighbour or having a chat with a friend in the park makes a huge difference to your feeling of social connectedness.”
We could learn from Scandinavian countries, where people routinely socialise outdoors in the depths of winter, Ward Thompson suggested. “You see people wrapped up, sometimes round a little fire, eating and talking in the freezing cold. It’s partly a mindset.”
Some pubs, cafes and restaurants are already preparing for an outdoor winter. “There’s been quite a lot of investment in shelters, marquees, patio heaters and so on to make outdoors eating and drinking more appealing,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, which represents the sector. Outdoor eating and drinking increased markedly this summer, she added. “Previously, our mentality has been that this is not something you do in winter, so it will be interesting to see if that changes. But there’s a limit to what you can do in the British climate.”
Even at home, we may spend more time alfresco this winter. The first two months of lockdown saw an increase in people buying outdoor living essentials such as barbecues and solar lights. Now fire-pits, gazebos, outdoor rugs and thermal underwear may have a moment.
John Lewis has seen an 82% increase in demand for outdoor heaters compared with last September and a surge in demand for fire pits, resulting in some brands selling out. “We’re all looking to make the most of our outdoor spaces that we enjoyed so much throughout the summer,” said a spokesperson.
Homebase has also seen more sales of outdoor items. “We’re continuing to sell chimineas and fire pits online, and we’ve seen sales increase by over 35% compared with last year, suggesting that our customers aren’t ready to come back indoors yet, despite the cooler and shorter evenings, and it’s a trend that’s here to stay,” it said.
For most of us, the best option will be warm and waterproof clothes and boots, and lots of blankets. “I think [it’s about] embracing the cold,” said Enbal Shacham, a public health professor at St Louis University in Missouri.
“I feel like we should be focusing on bundling up. Outdoors fires at restaurants and that sort of place. Green spaces could be translated into something that is really socially distanced – public open spaces? What can we do to create that space available for socialisation? It’s a cost. I think the cost is necessary though.”