In March 2020 with the growing spread of the Coronavirus COVID-19, the Scottish Government introduced the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020. In April they published a ministerial statement on access rights during COVID-19 and Scottish Natural Heritage produced the guidance Access to the outdoors during the current coronavirus outbreak: guidance for the public and land managers.

The aim of the regulations and associated guidance is to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed. 

Malcolm Combe, author of the ScotWays Guide to the Law of Access to Land in Scotland, reviewed the regulations and how they interact with the existing world-renowned Scottish rights of access in this paper.

The regulations did not include any means to close off rights of way, core paths or adjust the areas of land to which access rights apply. Instead, they regulated what people could actually do, their behaviour and Scottish Government guidance expanded on this.

If people don’t follow the regulations and guidance then they may be committing an offence or they may be deemed to be acting irresponsibly. Either way, they could forfeit their right of access as it only exists if you are acting lawfully and responsibly.

In their new Guidance, Scottish Natural Heritage supplemented the Scottish Outdoor Access Code by explaining what responsible behaviour looks like in the context of the pandemic, i.e. you must follow the guidance in order to be responsible.

  • stay local – please do not travel in your car to take exercise; please make use of the paths, open spaces and quiet roads in your local area;
  • maintain social distancing – stay at least 2m away from other people – including people who are working in the outdoors – and try to avoid popular paths or places at busy times. Be prepared to slow down or stop if needed to help maintain the necessary distance from others. If you meet other people on a narrow path, pass quickly but courteously and try to leave as much space as possible;
  • avoid touching surfaces like gates as much as possible – try to plan a route that does not require you to open gates. Wash your hands or gloves as soon as you get home.
  • if you have a dog, keep it on a lead or close at heel on farmland. Scottish Government guidance for owners of companion animals and livestock indicates that dogs from self-isolating households should be kept on a lead at all times, avoiding contact with other people and animals. If threatened by cattle, release your dog and take the shortest route out of the field;
  • avoid fields with young calves or lambs – go into a neighbouring field or onto adjacent land;
  • avoid fields with growing crops unless there is a clear path or field margin (remember that newly planted crops may not yet be obvious);
  • remember that Government rules specifically allow exercise rather than activities such as sunbathing or picnicking.

Land-managers are not exempted from the new regulations and Government guidance or their responsibilities under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Scottish Natural Heritage have included advice for land-managers in their new guidance.

As well as abiding by the social distancing and handwashing guidance, Scottish Natural Heritage recommends the use of signs, where necessary, to manage access, including a temporary new COVID-19 sign for busy areas and, as with all signage, to maximise its impact by:

  • wording signs to help people to comply, suggesting reasonable alternative routes if needed;
  • making signs apply for the minimum necessary time and area, and;
  • removing signs when they are no longer required. 

The guidance also suggests considering whether gates can be left open to allow people to pass without the need to touch them and notes current UK guidance suggests that the risk of the coronavirus being passed on to others from people using paths is considered to be very low, as long as people follow the Government’s instructions to maintain social distancing.

As always, advice is available from ourselves and your local authority or national park access officer.

ScotWays are maintaining a record of where COVID-19 has been used as a reason to close off public access.  If you find examples of this on your daily exercise route please email us details including grid reference, brief details and any photographs.  You should also report these to your local access officer.

We would also love to hear of examples of where people have helped encourage safe access at this difficult time.  We are heard of land managers installing hand gel by some gates and another creating simple notice boards to educate the public about wildlife, conservation and land management. You can email them to us or better still share them with us on social media Facebook and Twitter.