Should swimming be given special treatment in lockdown 2?

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There’s a petition going around asking the government to: “Allow open-air swimming pools, lidos & lakes to open in a new Covid-19 lockdown.” You can find the petition here. At the same time, Swim England are urging swimmers to sign a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to reconsider the decision to close pools.

The arguments in favour of outdoor swimming include the facts that transmission of covid-19 is lower outdoors, there is no evidence that covid-19 can spread to people through recreational water and swimming is undoubtably good for us. As for pools, Swim England point to research that says the “prevalence of coronavirus in leisure facilities is extremely low.” In addition, closing and re-opening pools is expensive. The financial damage to some may be so great that they can never reopen. Many open water venues have invested and geared up for winter swimming for the first time this year and have put robust covid-secure procedures in place. It’s a kick in the teeth to be ordered to close again.

There was a rumour, picked up by The Guardian but subsequently squashed, that golf, tennis and swimming were in line for a reprieve. Both golf and tennis can make similar arguments about the limited risk of covid-19 transmission when engaging in either of those activities. I’m sure a number of other sports can too.

While we love swimming, think it’s special and feel we can do it safely, people who do other sports feel the same way about what they do. There is something that makes me feel uncomfortable about singling out swimming, saying we’re different to everyone else. Imagine if golf were given a reprieve but nobody else. Would we be saying, yes, we understand, golf is safe? Or would we think golf has got its way because it’s an activity for the well-paid, influential and already privileged?

Much as I enjoy swimming, it’s not going to kill me to stay out of pools for a month, although I might be a bit more grumpy than usual. Obviously, if we were talking about a permanent ban on swimming, it would be different. The point about the future of pools, and the current financial situation of those who work them is more compelling, but this has to be put in the context of the bigger picture.

The government has decided, for now, to keep schools open. I don’t have the evidence, but common sense would suggest that transmission risk in schools, and between schools and families, is likely to be much higher than at outdoor swimming pools and venues. But education is hugely important and has already been disrupted massively. I understand why we need to do as much as we can to keep it going.

Given that keeping schools open will result in transmission, other measures need to be taken to reduce virus transmission. Stopping swimming, on its own, probably makes little difference, but stopping all sports might. Rather than pleading for special treatment for swimming, I wonder if it shows more solidarity to stand with other sports and do our bit, however small? It seems to me that we should either let all outdoor and safely managed sports continue or none. Picking exceptions is fraught with difficulty and controversy. My preference would be to allow all safely managed sports to continue - or perhaps safely managed outdoor activities - but given that isn’t going to happen, I can’t wholeheartedly support an exemption for swimming.

There will be disruption to people’s lives, reductions in income and financial damage to the organisations that run pools and venues. However, we can, individually and collectively, support pools and venues through this period and beyond, without necessarily going swimming. Right now, that may be the better choice.

01 Cover December

Issue 44 December 2020

  • Finding joy in 2020: Sarah Thomas looks back on a very strange year
  • Motivation: triple Olympian Keri-anne Payne on dealing with changing situations
  • UnstoppaBull: the extreme adventurer who swam in the highest lake on earth
  • Wild swimming: misadventures in the Peak District
  • Soul Cap: solving the problem of swimming with afro hair

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