COVID-19 – Return to the outdoors and looking ahead

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Logo: Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland

Landowners and countryside managers in the United Kingdom and Ireland’s outdoors have faced a challenge like no other during 2020. The response to COVID-19 did not come with industry standards, best practice principles and guidelines, international research or case studies. The challenge was magnified by an exponential increase in demand for visits to outdoor spaces and in many cases a reduction of resources due to staff being placed on temporary furlough leave or lack of access to volunteer support.

The Outdoor Recreation Network (ORN) and Visitor Safety Group (VSG) both provided excellent platforms for collegiate learning and sharing of information from the outset of the global pandemic. The connections forged through previous workshops, seminars and conferences providing the confidence to confide and share learnings.

Through their provision of secretariat services to these two key UK & Ireland wide industry networks, Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland (ORNI) has been well positioned to capture the learnings from the wide range of member organisations.

VSG COVID-19 Recovery Planning Guidance

A sub-group of VSG member organisations developed guidance which seeks to cover the key areas all landowners and countryside managers need to consider and assess when re-opening and managing outdoor public access sites / attractions and associated indoor / enclosed spaces during COVID-19 restrictions.

VSG Risk Control Spectrum diagram
VSG Risk Control Spectrum diagram

As the approach to lockdown and easing of restrictions differs in each jurisdiction, the guidance should be underpinned by the regulations, guidance and advice from the relevant Government. In turn, Government advice continues to constantly evolve so re-evaluation is essential.

When considering the need for, and level of, control measures it is recommended that sites are first assessed in terms of the VSG’s Risk Control Spectrum i.e. the level of staff presence at your site will influence the control measures that are reasonable and practicable to achieve.

This is further explored in ‘Managing Visitor Safety in the Countryside – Principles and Practice’ (3rd Edition), the guidelines consider the following Risk Control Spectrum

The VSG COVID-19 Recovery Planning Guidance considers:

  • Travel to and from work
  • Assessing sites
  • General Safety Measures for staff / volunteers / contractors
  • Site work safety
  • Engaging with people
  • Indoor Spaces
  • Outdoor Visitor Infrastructure

The guidance was supported by a VSG COVID-19 Recovery Planning Webinar (playback and slides available) which provided practical examples applied by landowners and countryside managers.

Returning volunteers safely considerations (Jo Parry, Volunteering Innovation Manager, National Trust)
Returning volunteers safely considerations (Jo Parry, Volunteering Innovation Manager, National Trust)

Returning Volunteers Safely

In recognition of the major role volunteers perform for many landowners and countryside managers, ORN delivered a webinar entitled ‘Returning Volunteers Safely’ (playback and slides available) in which several organisations outlined their challenges and approaches. The webinar discussed the practical considerations for visitor facing and non-visitor facing volunteers.

In addition to the practical considerations, key learnings were excellently framed by Jo Parry, Volunteering Innovation Manager, National Trust

Looking Ahead – what are the public telling us and how do we react?

As we moved into August / September, many landowners and countryside managers began to reflect on the learnings and preparing for the next stages. Key to this reflection and planning was the analysis of results from consumer surveys undertaken during lockdown.

This ORN webinar (playback and slides provided) explored research from across the UK and Ireland looking at how people engaged with the outdoors during and after lockdown – the benefits they gained, the barriers they faced, and the implications for outdoor recreation stakeholders going forward. Insights were provided by Sport Ireland, Sport England, Natural England, 56 Degree Insight and Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland.

In summary, the research across the nations demonstrated an increase in engagement with the outdoors during lockdown i.e. more people are getting outdoors more often. In turn, those getting outdoors more often are experienced higher levels of life satisfaction, happiness and lower levels of anxiety. However, the research also collectively highlighted there is an increased polarization of access to the outdoors i.e. those from the most deprived areas are less likely to spend time outdoors every day.

The challenge for the sector is therefore how we harness the current growth in engagement with the outdoors and also tackle the inequalities that exist.

Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland provides secretariat services for both:

Outdoor Recreation Network

Visitor Safety Group

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