Many lidos over 100 in the UK are seasonal. When the lockdown was announced, the pools were still in winter sleep mode, which means that the water had not been treated for several months and that the rescuers had been stopped. To be able to reopen safely, swimming pools must revive their water after a winter of stagnation. There are only two options for this: drain the pool, scrub the tank and fill it; or “shock” the water to make it clearer by adding harsh chemicals. Both are expensive and time consuming. And if the pools are heated, it can take up to a week, once the water is clean, to bring them to the right temperature.
Most of the UK’s publicly accessible outdoor pools are run by volunteers and operate at the forefront of finance. They receive no public money and will not have been eligible for government assistance related to a pandemic (if applicable) to compensate for lost income during the foreclosure. Given the glorious warm weather over the UK for most of June, the pools could reasonably have expected record income if they had been opened.
Pool management committees will not have been able to justify spending thousands of pounds to prepare a pool for reopening, then leave it inactive and increase electricity and chemical costs indefinitely to maintain water quality. And with swimming pools out of action, it is not possible to train and test lifeguards.
Dozens of seasonal lidos, including all of Cumbria, Strand Lido in Kent and Moretonhampstead in Devon, have already decided that they could not open at all in a viable way this summer, as they would not be open long enough to recover pool preparation costs at short notice. The advice from Swim England, which will roughly halve the maximum number of swimmers that can be in the water at any one time, as well as reduce the overall capacity of the site, only adds to the financial pressure. Some pools, such as the Shoalstone seawater pool in Brixham, South Devon, also believe that the requirements of the Swim England guidelines would fundamentally change the swimmers’ experience. They say that measures such as segregation in water and one-way systems are “contrary to the family experience that we encourage”.
Of the pools that plan to open, very few will be ready to do so tomorrow. Three exceptions are in London: Parliament Hill lido, which offers pre-bookable one-hour slots starting today; Charlton lido, where reservations are 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 entering a period of hectic work that will literally see all hands at the pumps. Swimmers will need to be patient while the work is going on, and they will need to be patient when the pools finally reopen, as it will not be as usual. Pre-booking for limited time slots will become the norm and long days of idleness to enjoy picnics by the pool, while diving in and out of the water is unlikely to be a feature of the life of the lido in 2020.
But our patience will be worth it. After so many dry months, we are at a touching distance from having the sun on our shoulders as we glide through crystal clear water. We have waited so long. We can wait a little longer.
• Emma Pusill is co-author of the Lido Guide, published by Unbound