What does the term ‘essential’ really mean? Alongside ‘unprecedented’, it is a word that has been used excessively during the pandemic. It has sparked a mountain of debate over what should be deemed ‘essential’ during lockdown, with some ‘essentials’ provoking more heated disputes than others. Supermarkets, unquestionably, are essential — everyone needs food to survive — but to what extent should other things that benefit our physical and mental wellbeing be classed as ‘essential’?
One recent uproar in this ongoing ‘essential’ debacle is the government’s decision to keep garden centres open during the last two national lockdowns, despite them being closed in the first. Like a lot of the government’s reasoning, the justification for this is confusing. The reason this has gained the most media attention is asserted by Tracey Crouch (Former Minister for Loneliness): “gardening and wider horticulture is often used as a means of improving physical and mental wellbeing”.
There is no denying gardening is excellent for our physical and mental health. According to the Horticulture Trade Association (HTA), you can burn off 87 Mars bars a year by doing some light gardening for one hour per week. If this is the genuine reason behind the decision to keep garden centres open this time round, well this is excellent, as finally the government is acknowledging just how much lockdown impacts the public’s physical and mental health. It shows they are making decisions to remedy this. Great! However, it raises the question: why aren’t places such as gyms — which so many depend on for physical and mental wellbeing, or — as many fellow literature enthusiasts will agree — local libraries also open?
While I understand keeping people safe is a priority, and what benefits one person’s mental health should not be undervalued or pitted against what benefits another person’s mental health, it does highlight an insincerity behind the government’s decision. In 2017 the horticulture industry contributed £24.2 billion to national GDP and HTA stated the pandemic could cost the UK gardening industry £200 million. Compare this against the fact most libraries are publicly funded and opening them would be another expenditure for the government and the legitimacy of ‘wellbeing’ motivations behind what the government deems as ‘essential’ starts to falter. Also note, research by Dr David Lewis shows reading six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by 68%, yet library doors remain firmly shut.
To what extent can people actually garden during this lockdown? For those who garden as a hobby, it is often in fair-weather seasons, not in the middle of winter when the ground is frozen, it’s bitingly cold and gets dark by 5pm. While it would be great to accredit the government with taking active steps to boost the UK’s wellbeing, I am sceptical. Boosting the economy seems to be the true motive here. Because if not, why haven’t the government opened libraries, enabling free access to literature that can be read all year round, safely inside, and provide all important escapism from the pandemic?