For almost four months at the height of the pandemic, Mandy Simons, 65, who lives alone and has severe asthma, saw no other people. So when the government announced a break in shielding in August, she immediately phoned her best friend Donna, who lives across London, arranging an outdoor meetup at a garden center where the risk of transmission of Covid is low.
Yet the happy reunion she had dreamed of became a mortifying experience, when she arrived and had to use the restroom – but an outside sign said: “We’re sorry but our restrooms are closed, due to hygiene restrictions. of Covid-19. “
Feeling desperate, the former charity worker ventured out onto the public toilet route, but it was also closed due to Covid restrictions. A nearby cafe has prohibited non-guests from accessing its facilities.
A Mail on Sunday investigation found that cuts by local councils have resulted in the closure of more than 300 public toilets, making it difficult for some people to leave their homes.
“I was forced to choose between my desperate need for human contact and, essentially, my dignity,” says the mother of two. “I walked the road for centuries looking for a place, even a patch of grass that was hidden from the main road, but there was nowhere. “
By the time Mandy saw an ad – and ran into it – it was too late. Wet and tearful, she had no choice but to go home.
It may seem like a trivial problem, but at least three million Britons suffer from health conditions that mean they need quick and easy access to a toilet when they are on the move.
Indeed, one in five women over the age of 40 suffers from some form of incontinence, and this figure is even higher for those who have given birth.
Now The Mail on Sunday can reveal that more than 300 public toilets have been closed since the start of this year – most during the pandemic due to a lack of staff available to clean them.
This newspaper first highlighted the problem in June, when experts spoke of the “impending public health disaster” to come if public toilets remained closed.
Visitors to beauty spots have been horrified by people urinating in the gardens and defecating between beach huts on the south coast, due to the lack of facilities.
Some three million Britons have health problems that force them to seek toilets with little prior warning, so the closure of public facilities prevents them from leaving their homes.
But months later, despite the easing of the lockdown, hundreds of toilets remain closed.
About one in five of the UK’s top 400 councils have closed facilities.
In Aberdeen, the number of toilets has been halved, while the Gateshead Council in Tyne and Wear knocked them down by almost 80 percent – leaving just ten in use, up from 46 at the start of last year.
The recent cut in services adds to what charities call an “urgent” problem.
Since 2010, the number of public toilets has grown from over 5,000 to just over 4,000. While most people caught unawares without any public convenience could often count on pubs, cafes and restaurants, to the era of Covid, this is not always possible.
Many have strict customer-only policies, as the rules secured by Covid require everyone who walks through the door to provide personal details, while others are banned altogether.
And with the rapid rise in infection rates and discussions about further restrictions on hospitality, the problem will only get worse.
Tom Riley, who runs the Lockdown Loo website, a digital map of toilets available to the public across the UK, including those in shops and restaurants, says his users are now reporting they are regularly banned from access to the washrooms that were originally open for the first few months. of the pandemic.
When approached, a local council promised that the toilets would be “reopened as soon as the government indicated it was safe to do so.”
But official government guidelines say that “public toilets, portable toilets and toilets inside the premises must remain open,” provided certain measures are taken to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19. This includes “keeping facilities well ventilated”, “making hand sanitizer available on entry” and “increasing the frequency of cleaning based on use”.
However, local authorities are not legally required to provide public toilets – and, Covid or not Covid, their operation is expensive.
Experts say that instead of assessing how these measures can be adopted, authorities have shut down the toilets completely in what has been seen as a “knee jerk reaction.”
Some toilets have been closed for fear of spreading Covid-19, although activists fear this is an excuse to save money
Raymond Martin, director of the British Toilet Association campaign group, said: “These are people who feel confident they can leave their homes safely knowing they will have access to the toilet.
“If they don’t, they won’t get out, which can hurt their mental health and hurt the local economy.
The organization, which is also working to increase the number of accessible toilets for people with disabilities, has sent letters to the government, asking it to set aside some of the local council’s funding to keep public toilets open during the pandemic.
He’s still waiting for an answer. Charities say the problem is particularly acute for the millions of Britons with so-called hidden disabilities, from bowel disease to diabetes to autism, who have endured months of isolation.
Alison Reid, Managing Director of IBS Network, the UK’s largest charity for people with irritable bowel syndrome, says: “I get calls every day from people who say they are reluctant to go out because that the toilets they usually use are closed.
“We have several disturbing reports of people having accidents because they cannot reach the toilet.
“It’s a nightmare situation, so people just don’t come out. Thousands of people are locked in their own homes.
Last year, a survey of 2,000 adults by the Royal Society for Public Health found that one in five Britons avoid going out for fear of being caught off guard, with the figure rising to two in five for those with pain of certain medical conditions.
Alarmingly, the poll also found that half of the population routinely dehydrates on purpose if they fear that they will not be able to find an outside toilet, risking UTIs.
This was the case with Holly Gresswell, 34, of Surrey, who was pregnant with her first child, Jude, during much of the lockdown.
The travel industry worker admitted to restricting her fluid intake before going out.
She said, “Jude, born in July, is a big baby and he pressed on my bladder the whole time. I constantly felt like I needed the toilet.
“When the lockdowns were slowly lifted, I went for a walk in nearby Richmond Park. But when I tried to use the public toilets, they were locked. I ended up having to go into a bush.
“So I started limiting the amount of drink I would have if I knew I was going out – risking dehydration – and even resorted to disposable travel bags for urine, just in case. . “
Alison Reid, Managing Director of IBS Network, the UK’s largest charity for people with irritable bowel syndrome, says: “I get calls every day from people who say they are reluctant to go out because that the toilets they usually use are closed ”
Now that she’s a mom, Holly says she’s still affected by the closures.
“I recently took Jude to the park, only to find that the changing unit was closed. I ended up changing his diaper in the middle of a field.
Contacted with the results of our investigation, a government spokesperson said the councils had received an “unprecedented package of emergency support and funding, so they can continue to provide the services the community needs. during the pandemic – including public toilets ”.
Yet the spokesperson also said: “The councils are responsible for managing their own resources.”
Meanwhile, Mandy – and thousands of people like her – are left trapped in their homes, veering on the side of caution.
The situation is a national disgrace, says Raymond Martin. “After all, access to a functioning toilet is a basic human right.