Are swimming pools safe, and will they reopen this summer?

Swimming pools - Getty
Swimming pools - Getty

It’s been a while since most of us have taken a refreshing dip and, with temperatures rising, many will want to grab their swimming costume and head for a pool. However, in this new world order nothing seems straightforward and keen swimmers have been left confused as to what is currently allowed and, indeed, what going for a swim will look like in the future.

The loosened UK government guidelines allow for open water swimming, so paddling in lakes, rivers and the sea is permitted. Public and privately run open water facilities can welcome swimmers too, though most have so far remained shut due to health and safety concerns. In May, a group of protestors held up banners and lobbied for the reopening of Hampstead Ponds, claiming that the rules now allowed them to swim. The City of London Corporation, which run the ponds, have so far resisted due to the need for lifeguards, which could threaten social distancing measures if a swimmer needed to be rescued. Elsewhere, the Serpentine in Hyde Park reopened briefly to members between 5am and 10am each morning, with hand sanitiser stations and without lifeguards. However, after being flooded with new members, it has since shut again.

In somewhat surprising news, no plans have been announced that would allow for lidos or indoor swimming facilities to open. This is despite the fact that hotels, restaurants and other leisure venues have been given the green light to reopen from July 4.

Here we break down the potential risks involved in reopening facilities, look at how hotels are dealing with the issue, and examine when public swimming pools might return.

Is it safe to swim during the coronavirus pandemic?

There is very little evidence to suggest that coronavirus can be passed through water and most experts agree that the risk of transmission while swimming is vanishingly small. In fact, pools could be particularly safe as, according to the World Health Organisation, chlorine kills the virus.

Swim England Head of Facilities Richard Lamburn agrees, explaining: “Scientifically, water that is well filtered with the appropriate level of disinfectant has been shown to be an environment where viruses and bacteria cannot survive”.

This may well mean that new regulations are put in place that require hotels and public pools to increase the levels of chlorine in their water.

The problem, of course, is the activity around swimming. Changing rooms present a risk due to frequently touched surfaces such as lockers and showers, plus the likelihood of close proximity to others. Certainly, at many of London’s popular public pools, social distancing is not simple, as anyone who has visited the London Fields Lido at the slightest suggestion of sun can attest. Similarly, hotels with busy indoor pools could be fertile ground for transmission due to a high turnover of guests and lack of ventilation in subterranean spa areas. If swimming is to be considered low-risk in these settings, it is likely plenty of hygiene measures, such as disinfecting ladders and patrons providing their own towels, will need to be taken.

Brockwell Lido - getty
Brockwell Lido - getty

Will public swimming pools and lidos in Britain open this summer?

As indicated above, no date has been given for swimming pools and lidos to reopen, with Boris Johnson announcing on June 23 that they would remain closed for the foreseeable future.

The chief executive of Swim England, Jane Nickerson, has called the decision to keep pools shut “appalling”, stating that: “Many will fail to understand how pubs, restaurants, cinemas, museums and hair salons have been given the go ahead to open on July 4 but not chlorine-filled swimming pools.”

The organisation has launched an “#OpenOurPools campaign, which calls for the Government to reconsider, and highlights the importance of pools for mental and physical health.

Nickerson has also warned that: “The longer facilities remain closed, the increased chance many of them won’t be able to afford to reopen”.

Anticipating better news, on June 15, Swim England issued “robust guidance to help the aquatics sector prepare for the reopening of pools”, so that facilities would be in a position to reopen in early July.

Before pools can be back in action, a number of procedures need to be carried out, such as re-heating the pool, which is a lengthy task as temperatures can only be increased by 0.25 degrees an hour, and ensuring the water has passed a microbiological test. Included in Swim England’s guidelines are “details around pool programming, observing social distancing, pool water treatment, air handling and circulation, risk assessment tools around social distancing and the customer journey”.

When pools eventually reopen, this could mean bookable slots, severely slashed capacity, fewer lanes and strict changing room protocols. It is unlikely visitors will be able to lounge in pools all day, and we could see a shift towards pools being solely utilitarian and largely for laps rather than general paddling and relaxation.

At the time, Jane Nickerson suggested that changing rooms might be out of action for some time and that people would be encouraged to arrive at pools “beach ready” (already changed) and drive home in a towelling robe. She also implied that children may be banned from pools outside of swimming lessons: “Kids playing around – I don’t think we’ll be seeing that for some time because of the social distancing”. 

Are hotels across the world allowing the use of pools as they reopen?

As hotels across Europe gradually reopen with strict hygiene measures in place, it is clear that the new hotel experience will be rather different. Some hotels are even keeping their pools and spas completely shut for the time being. In Spain, which has taken some of the strictest anti-virus measures, all hotels in Madrid and Barcelona must keep common areas, except outdoor terraces, closed for now.

Grand Hotel Tremezzo
Grand Hotel Tremezzo

However, in Italy’s Lake Como, the swish Grand Hotel Tremezzo will return on June 26 with its three pools open –though they have yet to confirm what exact safety measures they will take. At the reopened Pine Cliffs resort in the Algarve social distancing measures are in place around the pools and new beach towels delivered to your room daily, while sunbeds have to be reserved. At Schloss Elmau, the five-star mega-resort 60 miles south of Munich, a limited number of guests will be permitted to swim at one time and all are encouraged to “virtually schedule pool access in advance” to ensure crowd control. All saunas and steam rooms will remain closed for now.

In Greece, Elounda Peninsula All Suite Hotel will assign every suite and villa a set of umbrellas and sun loungers at the beach and main pool, which will remain the same for the whole stay. Each set will have around 10 square metres of surrounding space to ensure social distancing. Maisons Pariente's Crillon Le Brave and Lou Pinet in France will both steam clean all public areas every four hours and can provide guests with personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, on request.

Further afield, Metropolitan Touring, which operates Casa Gangotena, Mashpi Lodge and Finch Bay Galapagos in Ecuador, will only open 50 per cent of its hotels' hot tubs and swimming pools, while at Resplendent Ceylon’s hotels in Sri Lanka, resort pools will have their water treated on a daily basis.