Back with a splash but swimming needs cash for pools to stay afloat

Swimming pools re-opened in England on Saturday on the day the first heats of Olympic competition were scheduled to take place in Tokyo.

Back in the pool: Swimmers at the London Aquatic Centre. Picture: PA

Traditionally one of the most basic of human skills, the sport of swimming, however, is being put to the test like never before, and not just because coronavirus has forced the postponement of the Olympics by 12 months.

For at a more human level, it is the people who use swimming for exercise, to teach their children, or to improve their health and wellbeing, who could find such a simple art removed from their everyday lives.

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That is why the re-opening of swimming pools as part of the latest stage of the government’s roadmap to a return to normality after the worst of the global pandemic, is being greeted tentatively.

Beating lockdown: Olympic triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee did his swim training in an 'endless pool' which he had built in his garage in Leeds, after the closure of pools.

So much so that it comes with a warning from Swim England, the national governing body, that only one in five pools was due to open on Saturday and more than a third may not re-open again this year.

“It’s exciting that they can open, it’s just disappointing that fewer than 20 per cent will actually do so,” Jane Nickerson, the chief executive of Swim England, told The Yorkshire Post.

“Some will probably open on a phased return, but we wouldn’t be surprised if there’s probably 30 to 40 per cent that don’t open again this year.

“Finance is the main reason. It costs money to run swimming pools, you’ve got all the energy costs, you’ve got to get water temperature back up. They’ve been shut for so long there’s just been no revenue coming in at all.

Keeping safe: A member of staff cleans poolside railings at the London Aquatic Centre. Picture: PA

“The revenue that will come in once they are open will not cover running costs because there will be far less footfall due to social distancing.

“Without financial support from the government, it’s going to mean a lot of pools won’t re-open, which is very sad.”

There are 1,657 public pools in England, with a further 5,054 private and school pools. Ninety per cent are owned by charitable trusts, the rest are still owned and operated by the local authority.

A lot of the stock is old. A common site across local communities is a swimming pool that stood for decades destroyed, its members advised to use the new all-encompassing leisure centre down the road.

That is no bad thing, but it is a rising tide Swim England were paddling against long before coronavirus got hold of modern-day life.

“We had long-term fears, pre-Covid because we have an ageing pool stock in this country,” continued Nickerson.

“We did a piece of work we were going to publish this year, in which we were forecasting a 40 per cent drop in the number of pools open to the public by the end of this decade. That will be worse now because of Covid.

“What we need is a short-term solution now that allows leisure to re-open and start to put back the benefits that swimming provides for communities, and then have a longer-term plan looking at what we’re going to do with facilities.

“We are working with a number of organisations in the swimming and leisure sector to put an ask in to government for support. There is a bit of warmth towards that but they then have to put a bid in to treasury which hasn’t gone in at the moment, and then it’s a push to see if treasury will write a cheque that will then be managed by, perhaps, Sport England as the grant-giving body. They would then have a framework as to how they would ensure that money goes into the right places.

“If the government were to put some money in, the payback is so quick because of the benefits to the NHS and the social system.”

That could be the key component in Swim England’s bid for assistance – health and wellbeing. “Within Yorkshire and the Humber we believe we save the NHS and the social care system £32m per year,” explained Nickerson. “We’ve got case studies where people have withdrawn from long-term medication because they no longer needed that medication due to swimming. It helps older people with their balance and stops them falling. Swimming has had an amazing impact on people with dementia and for their carers. It’s also very good for arthiritis because there’s no weight bearing on the joints.

“We’ve heard of people say they can walk without a stick again, or they can sleep at night, because of swimming. So it’s not just the financial payback of swimming, it’s peoples’ lives that it changes.

“What we’re saying to government is if you put the money in to support us now, that will save you money you won’t need to find from the NHS moving forward. That’s £357m across the country for the year.”

Some pools did open here in Yorkshire on Saturday. Barnsley Premier Leisure opened all four of its pools in South Yorkshire (Hoyland, Metrodome, Dearneside and Royston).

“We surveyed our members and the community and they were desperate to get back in the pool,” said Simon Ferrarelli, corporate aquatics manager for Barnsley Premier Leisure.

“Swimming is a huge part of people’s wellbeing. You could run and do your exercises in the garden during lockdown, but you couldn’t swim. People have been missing out on what is a life skill.

“Chroline is the safest place you can be – it’s like diving into a tub of hand sanitiser.”

The pool environment has been proven by government scientists to be safe because chlorine kills the virus, and Swim England have issued guidelines to help with social distancing.

Swimmers are advised to arrive at pools ‘beach ready’, with their costumes on underneath and an understanding that they shower at home afterwards, to ensure they spend as little time as possible in the changing rooms. Once in the pool, the advice is for double-width lanes, six square metres apart and to be no more than a metre apart for any longer than five seconds – basically the time it takes to swim past someone in the opposite lane.

Barnsley Premier Leisure will operate their pools at 40 per cent capacity and will ask swimmers to pre-books slots online.

Leeds City Council is one of the few remaining local authorities to operate their own public pools. Holt Park Active opens today with a further five re-opening on Wednesday.

Pools in Bradford, Doncaster and Wakefield are set to start re-opening during August. But it is those pools that will not welcome back swimmers, where the real concern lies.

Other recreational Olympic sports, old and new, celebrated Saturday, July 25, as ‘liberation day’.

Badminton players were able to play singles and doubles at their local courts again.

Skateboarders were also able to use indoor skate parks once more in the week that their sport was to make its Olympic debut in Tokyo.

Both sports, like many others, have had to work hard to get clubs and facilities re-opened and give members access to the games they love.

Adrian Christy, the chief executive of Badminton England, has been a very passionate vocal challenger of the government’s phased reintegration of participation sports.

In The Yorkshire Post two months ago, he questioned why football could come back but badminton could not.

After finally learning that badminton players could return to court, Christy tweeted: “Huge news for badminton players, clubs and coaches! We have been in discussions with @DCMS and been able to demonstrate a safe return to full court singles AND doubles play from 25 July. I know this is a significant step for grassroots badminton.”

Badminton England have also set up a Covid-19 Hardship Fund designed to help affiliated clubs and registered coaches restart activity.

Skateboarding GB chief executive James Hope-Gill was another relieved to see his sport back in business. He tweeted: “This is really exciting for skateboarding as English indoor skateparks are able to open from tomorrow (July 25) providing they can follow the guidelines to ensure everyone is safe from COVID. Really proud of the work we’ve done to ensure this happens.”

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