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“This is not the time to ‘have a go’ at open water swimming.” The outdoor swimming community responds to the government’s new guidance

Water safety organisations and outdoor swimming community express concern after the Prime Minister announces open water swimming allowed in England from Wednesday

On Sunday night, Boris Johnson announced plans to ease lockdown measures from Wednesday 13 May. Unlimited outdoors exercise and driving to take exercise will be permitted in England – these new guidelines do not apply to Scotland and Wales.

On Monday afternoon at Prime Minister’s Question Time, Johnson clarified that outdoor exercise includes outdoor swimming – while maintaining social distancing.

The Prime Minister’s announcement was met with glee by many swimmers and wild swimming groups on social media, but some key figures in the world of outdoor swimming and lifesaving have voiced fears over safety.

Swim England, RLSS UK and British Triathlon are currently discussing strategy for the safe return of open water swimming and released separate statements yesterday ahead of expected joint guidelines to be released ahead of Wednesday.

Swim England stated that swimmers should “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.” They advise that only “competent and experienced open water swimmers use this form of exercise, whilst adhering to social distancing guidelines.”

RLSS UK have taken a tougher stance: “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.

“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.”

British Triathlon urged those with no previous experience in outdoor swimming to “please not do so unless you are in a safe open water swimming venue.”

Too soon?

Some members of the outdoor swimming community have expressed concern that the Prime Minister’s announcement was premature and irresponsible and will encourage people with no outdoor swimming experience to take risks in the open water.

“Staying safe in open water is really important,” says Leon Fryer of Swimyourswim, marathon and ice swimmer and adviser on the STA Open Water Swimming Coaching qualification. “If you’re new to the adventure please bear with us, safe lifeguarded venues will be open soon where your safety and enjoyment of open water swimming will be paramount. Please keep the pressure off of the emergency services keeping them and their families safe. We look forward to welcoming you back into the open water soon.”

Other venues and swimmers have taken voiced similar concerns.

Shepperton Open Water Swimming Lake tweeted yesterday:

In London, there are no plans yet to reopen Hampstead ponds or Parliament Hill Lido:

Clevedon Marine Lake stated on Twitter:

At present there are no RNLI lifeguards on beaches. “Although our volunteer lifeboat crews are fully operational, should they be needed, it is important that anyone visiting the coast understands the risk and takes the necessary steps to keep themselves safe. This will also help to reduce the demands placed on our lifeboat crews and other emergency services including HM Coastguard,” stated the RNLI.

On Sunday the RNLI were called out to rescue a swimmer at Clevedon Marine Lake who was lifted by a surge of water over the pool wall and taken into the deep Channel. RNLI Portishead, a Coastguard helicopter, Coastguard land teams from Clevedon and Portishead and RNLI crew from Weston Super Mare were all involved in the rescue of the swimmer. Following the rescue the crew then carried out safe decontamination of all their PPE and the lifeboat My Lady Anne. This has prompted some outdoor swimmers to consider the safety implications of swimming to themselves and to others.

Emma Pusill, author of the Lido Guide, tweeted:

In a poll we are running on Twitter, currently around 65% of respondents believe that it is too soon to return to the water.

Other swimmers are looking forward to swimming this week. The Outdoor Swimming Society responded to yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister by posting advice to their followers on how to swim safely.

Stay local

While the guidance now allows outdoor swimming and driving to exercise, national parks and areas of the country popular with swimmers like the Lake District and Cornwall have urged people not to travel so as to avoid a second spike in COVID-19 cases.

“The government message may have changed but the seriousness of our situation has not, particularly in vulnerable areas like Cumbria,” says Suzanna Cruickshank, outdoor swim business owner. “The virus has not gone away; an influx of visitors now would put our rural resources under strain.”

Following Sunday’s announcement by the Prime Minister, Richard Leafe, Chief Executive of the Lake District National Park, tweeted:

Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, tweeted:

In an interview with BBC Radio Cornwall, Steve Instance, RNLI lead for water safety in the South West, says the charity won’t be able to put a full service out this summer. “You really need to think is the beach the place for you right now?” he stated.

If you do plan to wild swim please swim safely and think of others. We have comprehensive open water safety guidelines on our website.

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.