Public health in public places has to remain top priority, says Alison Johnstone.
In current circumstances, scenes of crowded beaches and parks can be stressful to see, not least because we have been told for months how easily the coronavirus can spread in in large groups of people.
Pictures of day trippers cheek-by-jowl on Bournemouth beach were shown around the world last week, as visitors ignored advice to stay away and it was overrun with cars and sunbathers. The council reported gridlock, illegal parking and anti-social behaviour.
We know the cost in public health terms. In other countries, lockdown restrictions have been reintroduced in local areas after large gatherings saw spikes in the number of infections.
But there are other risks too. We’ve seen first hand in Edinburgh the impact of these huge crowds on places like Portobello beach and the Meadows. The mountains of litter left behind have been absolutely shocking.
When I was a councillor I represented the Meadows, and I remember many residents had concerns then about how some people were treating the park, but I have never seen littering of the scale we saw last week. Reports of human waste being found nearby were absolutely appalling.
It wasn’t just me who was shocked by this. Residents gathered at 5am to pickup the litter, pausing only to arrange it into the number of people in Scotland who have died of the virus – a sombre and powerful message about the stakes we are dealing with.
On top of the Coronavirus risk such crowds bring, there is the very real danger that comes from untreated human waste. There has to be serious questions about public toilet provision in Edinburgh, and how they could be kept safe.
Another common theme from these mass gatherings has been reports of anti-social behaviour. Our emergency services don’t need the extra work.
There is a wider public health implication too if visitors cannot dispose of or recycle their litter.
This isn’t just a problem of mass gatherings. Keep Scotland Beautiful say that there have been increased reports of littering during lockdown, especially people abandoning precious PPE equipment, fly tipping and dog fouling.
What has changed culturally? Has littering become more socially acceptable? We know that people are increasingly concerned about the environment, but that hasn’t resulted in a reduction in the 15,000 tonnes of litter dropped in Scotland every year.
This is a question of civic pride. We should be proud of Edinburgh’s international reputation as a city of beauty. Visitors should be impressed by our fantastic green spaces. More importantly, our citizens should be able to enjoy them safely.
Like everywhere else, broken glass, rusted metal, throwaway barbeques and cigarette butts in the Meadows are extremely dangerous, especially for children and dogs. This is a park where many families live nearby. It is also flanked by a school and, for now, a children’s hospital. This is a park which is used by children. They should not be in danger of infections, unsanitary conditions, broken glass or witnessing violent scenes.
Only by working as a community can we keep each other safe in these strange times.