© Provided by The GuardianPhotograph: Neil Hall/Reuters
Slowly, if a little unsteadily, the endgame out of lockdown approaches. From Monday England's pubs and restaurants can swing open their doors. Next month, clubs and casinos can join them. All of which makes the uncertain fate of parkrun, one of Britain's greatest ever public health initiatives, even more extraordinary. It had planned to resume on 6 June. Instead it has become mired in a bureaucratic nightmare worthy of Kafka and faces indefinite postponement.
You might ask why, given that parkrun has spent six months working with Sport England, Public Health England and the DCMS on a framework to resume again. But those who must give their approval - local authorities and landowners - don't appear to be listening. So far less than a third of the 589 events have approval, far short of the magic figure of 80 or 90% needed.
"The reality is we've got three million registered partners in England and around 200,000 people take part in a normal week pre-Covid," parkrun's chief executive, Nick Pearson, says. "But at the moment, we've only got three permissions in London, where we have 57 events, and half a million registered parkrunners. It would be totally irresponsible to allow those three events to open."
Related: The remarkable story of Harry Edward: Britain's first black Olympian
The MP David Davis says it will be a national embarrassment if parkrun doesn't return this summer. I prefer a Great British Farce. Certainly it can't be right when some local authorities claim it will take months for Safety Advisory Groups to approve parkrun. Or when others cite the need for isolation tents. One council even wants parkrun to provide the precise temperature that volunteer vests must be washed at to make them safe. It is dizzying, discombobulating, and wholly unnecessary. Especially given that the science overwhelmingly shows that the risk of transmission outdoors is tiny and - contrary to expectations - even lower at the start line than during the run. © Photograph: Neil Hall/ReutersA parkrun in London's Bushy Park in 2014.
What needs to be hammered into officials is the extraordinary benefit of parkrun, especially as we come out of lockdown. People often say that if exercise was a pill it would be the greatest drug ever invented. For the past 17 years parkrun has acted as a free dispensary.
Over the weekend I spoke to Jodie Binch, who set up the Brierley Forest parkrun on a former colliery site near Mansfield with her colleague Dave Herbert. Before lockdown they would get around 200-250 people each week. But the value to the community was far greater than that.
"There is a certain magic to parkrun that comes from the fact that it's inclusive to everybody: young or old, fit or unfit, runner or walker," she said. "And because it's free, for people in socially deprived areas it's a fantastic form of exercise and joining in the community. The elderly also like to volunteer with us. It gets them out every Saturday. They've got specific places on our course and everybody knows their names."
And it really is universal. The fastest parkrun ever, 13 mins 20 secs, was by the London 2012 Olympian Andy Baddeley. But the stragglers are just as celebrated when they finish around the hour mark. Indeed, parkrun actually takes great pride in the fact that the average finishing time has slowed from 22 minutes in 2005 to nearly 30 minutes now. It shows that its ethos of creating an environment that is inclusive and fun is working.
Alongside Binch sat Edward Porter, a 78-year-old whose struggles have included spending time in a homeless shelter. "It's changed my whole life," he said. "I started by volunteering. Now I have run it 48 times. It really is like a big family."
All parkruns have stories like these. In recent years it has even started up in prisons. Michelle Glassup, who helps run parkrun at Feltham Young Offenders Institute, says the effect on the inmates' mood is striking. "For that hour every Saturday they do not stop smiling," she says. "It's a fitness element, it's a wellbeing element. But we also use it for our boys' Duke of Edinburgh journey too. And I still get messages from those who continue using parkrun when they get out. They thrive off the routine and community every Saturday."
And the stark and simple truth is that parkrun is needed more than ever. Last month Sport England released its latest Active Lives Survey, which showed that 12.3m adults did less than 30 minutes of exercise a week - even though its definition of exercise is loose enough to include brisk walking. It also found that 1.2m more people had become inactive during lockdown.
Meanwhile a new article in the Journal of Sports Sciences, looking at the role of physical activity in ameliorating the mental health implications of Covid 19, notes that "data emerging in April 2020 indicated a deterioration in mental health among UK residents across all age groups . [but] physical activity demonstrates a dose-response relationship with mental health status."
Parkrun recognises this. A few years ago it created a partnership with the Royal College of GPs, which has led to 1600 GP practices around the country prescribing it to patients to boost their physical and mental health.
"We don't want to be in conflict with anybody," says Pearson. "We have done an enormous amount of work to make this process as easy as possible for councils to help us return. Parkrun is courteous and responsible. Now we just want to go back to helping communities across the country."