The prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that all leisure facilities, including outdoor swimming pools and other venues, will be forced to close from Thursday when new lockdown measures come into force.
There had been calls for outdoor swimming venues, along with other outdoor leisure activities such as golf and tennis, to be granted an exemption under the restrictions, but any hopes of this were rejected by the prime minister when responding to parliamentary questions on Monday evening.
Answering questions from MPs, Johnson said that offering exemptions to the lockdown would mean “the effectiveness of the whole package is compromised.”
The Conservative MP for Waveney, Peter Aldous, specifically urged the prime minister to rethink rules on activities such as outdoor swimming “that can take place in a socially distanced and responsible way”, referencing Beccles Lido, which is based in his constituency in Suffolk.
The prime minister said the government would “look at any exceptions that we can sensibly make”, but added: “It’s difficult to take out one part of the Jenga block without disturbing the whole package.”
Shaun Crowley, Chief Executive of Beccles Lido, says he understands the government’s decision to impose a blanket lockdown without exemptions, but is nevertheless “disappointed” by the new measures.
“We remain of the view at Beccles Lido that we are both a safe environment as well as a vital one for maintaining public health and wellbeing.
“A new lockdown and closure of the pool would not only severely hit our operating income, but also leave us with staff for whom the future would be most uncertain.
“I note the £100m support package announced by Oliver Dowden (Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport), but this is for council run leisure facilities only – a cruel hammer blow for us, given that despite having provided the only public swimming in Waveney for most of the summer and autumn, we enjoy no regular financial support from the council.”
There are also concerns among unheated outdoor swimming facilities that the decision will mean winter swimmers will not return after the lockdown, and therefore spell further financial implications for operators.
Emma Pusil, co-author of The Lido Guide, says the prime minister’s decision comes at a “critical period” for cold-water swimmers, for whom swimming regularly as water temperatures drop is essential to both habituation and acclimatisation.
“The best-case scenario is that outdoor pools could re-open in December, but by that time swimmers will have missed a very important part of the process of acclimatisation. They may therefore either not return at all, or may return and overdo it because they haven’t swum regularly.”
There are also concerns that the closure of lidos and outdoor pools will lead to swimmers taking extra risks by swimming outdoors in wilder places.
“It was risky enough in summer, but it is even riskier now,” says Pusil. “Not least as we now have a significant number of swimmers who were new to outdoor swimming this year because pools were closed.
“Obviously we welcome everybody into the fold, but with limited experience, and not being able to gather in groups of more than two, it means that new outdoor swimmers won’t have the opportunity to learn from their peers or access specialist cold-water training.”
A volunteer at one lake, which was due to stay open for winter swimming for the first time this year, says they plan to re-open after lockdown, but will “re-evaluate the situation as things progress” and only if they feel swimmers will be safe.
“It is possible for swimmers to reacclimatise in winter, but it has to be done very carefully,” the volunteer says. “If we don’t feel it is right to open again this winter, we won’t. Economics has no weight in our decision to open in winter – safety and health come first.”
Jane Nickerson, CEO of Swim England, the national representative body for swimming in England, has urged the public to sign an open letter to the prime minister by 5pm on Tuesday 3 November asking him to reconsider the decision to close “essential” swimming pools and leisure centres.
In the letter, she says: “We believe the decision to force leisure centres to close is a mistake. Swimming pools are well managed, chlorinated, controlled environments where the risk of transmission can be successfully mitigated.”
A public petition has also been set up in response to the new lockdown, campaigning for open-air swimming pools, lidos and lakes to stay open – so far gaining over 26,000 signatures.
The creator of the petition, Jessica Thorpe, says: “We’re very happy that so many people have signed it in such a short space of time. Unfortunately, we need 100,000 signatures for the government to debate it in parliament, so we have some way to go yet.”