Swim England

A nation swimming

Millions will go swimming again... but few know effort put in to make that happen 

On 20 March, 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced swimming pools would close as part of the efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus. Alex Hains, Swim England’s head of business engagement, reflects on the past 12 months – and praises a dedicated team effort to get them reopened.

At the beginning of March last year, none of us could have predicted what was coming.

When Boris Johnson announced on Friday 20 March that England’s 3,794 facilities with swimming pools would close days before the first national lockdown was confirmed, few of us would have envisaged the vast majority would still be shut 12 months on.

It may appear on the face of it that very little has changed in the past year – but that’s definitely not the case.

The anniversary of pool closures may feel like the appropriate time to look back on all that has happened but it is also a time to examine what we have achieved – and to celebrate the people behind the scenes running the pools, who have worked so hard to reopen them safely.

As pools were put into hibernation mode, my emails consisted of messages of solidarity from operators, ‘stay safe’ sign offs and hopeful promises to catch up soon.

It soon became clear that waiting this out would take longer than anticipated and those messages quickly changed to ‘what can I do to help?’.

Soon, collaboratively, we were discussing the need for reopening guidance and before too long we began creating working groups to consult and create the content.

It is in those months that pool operators from across the country shared their insights and experience and worked with Swim England daily to create guidance that, we all hoped, would present the case to the Government that pools could open safely.

And although it was later than we had hoped for, it worked and indoor pools began to reopen from Saturday 25 July.

Vital role

It seems obvious to say that pool operators wanted to reopen but it’s important to understand that many realised it would be under reduced capacities – and therefore reduced income.

For that reason, it was not surprising to see that only 23 per cent of public pools reopened when they were allowed to do so.

Not long after, that figure had shot up to 68 per cent by the end of August and, by the end of the year, before everything would close again, over 80 per cent of public pools were back open.

A key contact told me that public leisure sector had ‘shot itself in the foot’ by reopening so quickly as staying closed would have made a better case to the Government for funding to help support them.

I asked why they had opened then and was told ‘because it was the right thing to do’.

Swimming pools play a vital role in improving the health of the nation and it is very fortunate we have so many people running them that understand that.

Waiting game

Since they were allowed to reopen in July, we’ve had two further national lockdowns and other enforced closures due to tier restrictions.

When they were open, the guidance had been followed so effectively that evidence from Public Health England has revealed that swimming pools have an incredibly low number of cases linked to them.

We’ve been in a waiting game again since 4 January and once the third national lockdown was announced, I considered again ‘what can we do to help’?

We decided to consolidate some of our virtual networking opportunities in to one weekly meeting, for any pool operator to drop in to and offer some open discussion as well as some targeted themed meetings with external guests.

With pools being closed, we didn’t anticipate great attendance. But once again the commitment of pool operators to stay engaged and talking about swimming and being ready to reopen has been exceptional.

When the PM announced his roadmap out of lockdown, more than 100 operators attended the weekly meeting, which further highlights how much the people behind the scenes really care.

Committed to the task

Week in and week out, pool operators are sharing their experiences and plans, leading to in-depth discussions on how to safely bring schools back to public pools or how to train and retain their lifeguards, where funding for training might be sourced and even ‘proportionate universalism’ – something I had to Google!

We might still have to live with restrictions when indoor pools reopen but, all of a sudden, a time without guidance hopefully doesn’t seem too far away.

I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone that has worked so hard to open so many pools across England in the past 12 months.

Even when they were forced to close over and over, so many have remained committed to the task of doing it all again.

Millions will go swimming again – but few will know how much effort the people behind the scenes put in to make that happen.

Myself, and those that will return to indoor pools on Monday 12 April, remain eternally grateful.