Coronavirus: what the government’s new guidance means for outdoor swimmers

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that some sports including swimming in lakes and rivers are now allowed, as the government updates its lockdown measures on outdoor activity for England – these new guidelines do not apply to Scotland and Wales.

What has the government said?

The government announced that as of Wednesday 13 May, people will be allowed to spend more time outdoors for “leisure purposes”.

You can now take part in “unlimited exercise outdoors” and “meet one other person from a different household outdoors”, so long as you follow the government’s social distancing guidelines.

There is now also no limit to the restrictions on how far people can drive to outdoor open spaces, “so long as it is only with members of your own household”.

You shouldn’t travel with someone from outside your household, “unless you can practise social distancing – for example cycling”.

You can find the government's full guidance on the lockdown here.

Can I go swimming?

Boris Johnson told MPs in the House of Commons that the guidance on outdoor activity includes open water swimming with one other person, so long as social distancing is observed at all times.

“We can’t do anything for swimming pools,” Johnson told MPs. But said that changes to allow people to access lakes and the sea will kick in from Wednesday as there is a “lower risk outdoors than indoors.”

Should I go swimming in the open water?

While it is now legal to swim outdoors and to travel to do so, national parks and areas that are popular with swimmers such as Cornwall and the Lake District are urging the public not to travel to those areas for fear of precipitating a second spike in coronavirus cases.

Swim England are advising that only "competent and experienced open water swimmers use this form of exercise, whilst adhering to social distancing guidelines." Swim England also ask that swimmers "consider the risks to themselves and others whilst participating in this activity as the majority of locations will not have lifeguards and there is a real risk of cold water shock at this time of year."

RLSS UK has said that: "swimming in ponds and open water that will not be lifeguarded poses a significant risk to the public and could put a strain on emergency services above and beyond other activities. We recognise that there are many seasoned swimmers that are capable of enjoying the water, safely. Unless suitable safety measures and guidance are in place to protect the public, emergency services and lifeguards, we would encourage, for this short time, for everyone, including seasoned open water swimmers to refrain from exercising in water."

British Triathlon released a statement saying: "is it [open water swimming] a responsible thing for you to do and if doing so are you increasing the risk of being a burden on the NHS or emergency services should you require assistance?" While setting out some safety guidelines for those who do choose to swim, British Triathlon also urge those with no previous experience in outdoor swimming to "please not do so unless you are in a safe open water swimming venue."

A joint statement from Swim England, RLSS UK and British Triathlon is expected ahead of Wednesday.

Read more about how the outdoor swimming community has responded to the government’s new lockdown measures.

How can I swim safely?

Although outdoor swimming is now allowed, safety should be paramount. If you do choose to swim please follow our safety guidelines below. Also consider the safety of others as well as yourself. Remember that we advise people to never swim alone in case you get into difficulties while swimming - if you did, it would be difficult to maintain a 2m separation while being rescued. There are also currently no RNLI lifeguards at beaches in the UK and Ireland.

If you do decide to swim, please remember:

  • We recommend that you never swim alone
  • That you need to adhere to social distancing requirements throughout your swim, including changing, which means you can’t ask for help with a wetsuit
  • Beaches remain un-lifeguarded and the RNLI is asking people not to swim in the sea
  • If you’re new to outdoor swimming we recommend either starting at a supervised venue (which are still closed) or joining an experienced group (which aren’t active at the moment)

Please read our full open water safety guidelines.

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Issue 42 October 2020

  • Q&A with Jaimie Monahan - marathon swimmer and Queen of the Ice
  • Autumn swim adventures around the UK
  • The science behind cold water acclimatisation
  • The often deadly history of unsupported marathon swims
  • Reviewed: What's in our kit bag?

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