England's lidos can open on Saturday – but swimmers can't dive in just yet

Emma Pusill
Photograph: Caroline Cortizo/Alamy

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s announcement on 9 July that lidos can reopen from Saturday 11 July had outdoor swimmers across the UK digging out their towels and togs at the prospect of being able to return to the water. After months of what has felt like bone-dry purgatory for many of us, the feverish anticipation was evident across social media, while pools have reported being inundated with messages asking if they would be opening on Saturday.

But swimmers will need to be patient a little while longer. Being given just 48 hours’ notice that your business can reopen is a challenge for any sector. Scrambling to fit the physical infrastructure such as perspex screens and signage, mark out one-way systems and source PPE is a mammoth struggle. Swimming pools have to do all that, but also have unique challenges which render opening within 48 hours not so much a struggle as a wildly unrealistic proposition.

Many of the UK’s 100-plus lidos are seasonal. When lockdown was announced the pools were still in winter slumber mode, which means the water had been untreated for several months and lifeguards had been stood down. To be able to reopen safely, pools must bring their water back to life after a winter of stagnation. There are only two options for this: drain the pool, scrub the tank and refill it; or “shock” the water back to clarity by adding strong chemicals. Both processes are expensive and time consuming. And if pools are heated it can take up to another week, once the water is clean, to bring them up to the right temperature.

Most of the UK’s remaining publicly accessible outdoor pools are run by volunteers, and operate on a financial knife-edge. They receive no public money and will not have been eligible for very much (if any) pandemic-related financial support from the government to make up for income lost during lockdown. Given the glorious hot weather over the UK for most of June, pools could reasonably have expected a bumper income had they been open.

The committees that run pools will not have been able to justify spending thousands of pounds making a pool ready in anticipation of the reopening, only to then have it sitting idle indefinitely accruing more costs for electricity and chemicals to maintain the water quality. And with pools out of action, it is not possible to train and competency test lifeguards.

Dozens of seasonal lidos, including all those in Cumbria, Strand Lido in Kent and Moretonhampstead in Devon, have already decided that they cannot viably open at all this summer, because they would not be open long enough to recoup the costs of preparing the pool at short notice. Swim England’s guidance, which will approximately halve the maximum number of swimmers that can be in the water at any one time, as well as reducing overall site capacities, only adds to the financial pressure. Some pools, like Shoalstone Sea Water Pool in Brixham, south Devon, also feel that the requirements of the Swim England guidance would fundamentally alter the swimmers’ experience. They say that measures such as segregation in the water and one-way systems are “contrary to the family experience we encourage”.

Of the pools that do intend to open, very few will be ready to do so tomorrow. Three exceptions are in London: Parliament Hill lido, which is offering pre-bookable one-hour slots from today; Charlton lido, where booking is essential but where they will double the width of the lanes and halve the number of swimmers; and Jubilee Park Woodhall Spa, where online booking is also required and is available from today. Most are now embarking on a period of frenzied work which will see, quite literally, all hands to the pumps. Swimmers will need to be patient while that work takes place, and they’ll need to be patient when pools do eventually reopen as it will not be business as usual. Pre-booking for time-limited slots will become the norm and long, lazy days enjoying pool-side picnics, while dipping in and out of the water are unlikely to be a feature of lido life in 2020.

But our patience will be worth it. After so many dry months we are within touching distance of having the sun on our shoulders while we glide through crystal clear water. We’ve waited this long. We can wait a little longer.

• Emma Pusill is co-author of The Lido Guide, published by Unbound