Swimming outdoors is specifically allowed, as is driving any distance to get there, and doing any exercise or spending time outdoors as often as you like, as long as it is alone, with household members, or up to 6 people from different households, at 2 m distance. Details and summary here, and some issues to consider.
My summary of the position from 1 June:
People should continue to minimise the number of social contacts they have.
As long as 2m distance is observed they can meet in a group of no more than six people from any number of households to exercise or spend time outdoors – though are urged to minimise minimise time and numbers of households.
People can exercise outdoors as much and as often as they wish, and can drive any distance to get to the open space (though not to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). It doesn’t have to be exercise, it can be spending time in the outdoors, “for example sitting and enjoying the fresh air, picnicking, or sunbathing”.
Facebook groups and similar in which people usually arrange to meet others to swim together can, if they choose, enable people to meet one other, as long as the total does not exceed 6, and 2m distance is observed.
People have been asked not to go to hotspots or popular tourist destinations to avoid putting extra pressure on emergency services, and to be cautious especially if they are not used to water temperatures or are new to outdoor swimming. Many swimming spots are in small rural communities where it could be insensitive to flock to in large numbers. So as swimmers we should be restrained and sensitive to the areas if we are considering travelling there to swim, and follow the Outdoor Swimming Society advice on responsible swimming at this time
See more reactions and advice towards the end of this post.
Swimming is no more risky than other activities, but we should continue to minimise risk when swimming, as distancing is not possible should you need rescue, and we still want to avoid burdening emergency services. See Outdoor Swimming Society advice and more on swim safety on this website.
The Royal Life Saving Society have put some basic water skills training online. It is worth learning some skills and educating yourself to give you confidence in the water. Even young lifesavers can complete the course. The toolkit runs over four units and covers an introduction to water safety, different environments, emergency actions and safe rescue. (Apparently it is simple to do once you register online, but I haven’t yet) www.rlss.org.uk/take-the-toolkit
This is really useful practical and sensible advice, including on whether and where it is ok or acceptable to do outdoor activities, which could apply to swimming – Covid and the outdoors: Professor Ian Hall answers your questions
Outdoor exercise is good for you
There was a useful phrase in the 13 May legislation (which listed reasonable excuses to leave your home, including this one):
“to visit a public open space for the purposes of open-air recreation to promote their physical or mental health or emotional wellbeing”
as it showed that the government recognised explicitly the value of open-air recreation, which of course includes swimming, paddling, and just enjoying the water. (Previous version of Reg 6, Regulations 2020 – Legislation.gov.uk (downloads PDF))
The law and guidance
The legislation is been amended. You no longer to need to have a reasonable excuse to go out, but you must not stay overnight, or meet people indoors. Latest legislation as amended 1 June
College of Policing advice (England) has been updated and gives a good concise explanation in a PDF that can be downloaded from the College of Policing website.
Quotes from official sources, and Older info – in boxes at the end of this post
[Referring to England only]
The government’s full document, published 2:55 PM 11 May 2020, ‘OUR PLAN TO REBUILD: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy’, May 2020, CP 239, Download: https://t.co/zPUWwGS8si?amp=1
Latest legislation as amended
College of Policing advice – England – has been updated and gives a good concise explanation in a PDF that can be downloaded from the College of Policing website.
Reactions and advice
Outdoor Swimming Society advice on responsible swimming at this time advises swimmers to:
- Swim local – visit nearby places. Walk or cycle if possible.
- Litter pick – in and out of the water. Pack rubbish sacks, gloves, and/or an empty tow float.
- Reduce crowding – consider swimming early or later in the day. If it’s crowded, be prepared to go home.
- Social distance – follow advice at all times.
- Think twice before sharing – for the time being, don’t tag locations on social media.
- Stay safe – and respect the local environment and people at all times.
- Avoid honeypots – avoid iconic and idyllic spots and those known to be overwhelmed.
- Think small – if you usually swim in a group, consider swimming with fewer people than usual.
RLSS: Five Points For Open Water Swimming Safety (see graphic at end of this article) Has a link to the advice discussed in the next paragraph
‘Key safety advice for open water swimmers’ drawn up jointly by RLSS, Swim England, and British Triathlon Download the document. Comment: I think this advice issued 13 May is fairly well balanced and sensible, especially for those planning to swim in unsupervised waters. It puts a strong emphasis on swimming in supervised waters, considering whether it’s appropriate to swim at all at the moment, and if you do swim recommending a wetsuit below 20°, then goes on to explain how to assess a place for risk and how to keep yourself safe. Not all will need to wear a wetsuit, either because they are already acclimatised, or can soon be – though in a sensibly gradual way – in waters which are now warming up fast (around 16 degrees in East Anglian rivers, about 18 degrees in lakes, might be colder elsewhere.)
STA Open Water Swimming Guidance FOR Swimmers and Coaches published13 May, download the PDF. Comment: I don’t think this guidance is helpful. It suggests that swimming is so dangerous that it should never be done unsupervised in open water. In fact if people follow simple safety guidelines – as all other organisations are putting out – swimming is no more dangerous than many other activities on land or water.
Outdoor Swimming Society team members share their reflections and changing approaches on swimming in these times (June 2020), and raise questions about how lockdown has brought ongoing concerns with inland access into sharper focus.
In May, and to an extent still in June, some influential individuals and organisations are suggesting that people should not swim at the moment on moral grounds. In contrast, this is a nice reflective non judgemental piece in Outdoor Swimmer 14 May.
Another balanced discussion, by a coastal swim group 23 May https://seabirdsdotblog.wordpress.com/2020/05/23/to-swim-or-not-to-swim/
Outdoor swimming venues are beginning to open, with distancing measures and limited supervision. The Outdoor Swimming Society website has an Open Water Swimming Lake Directory and this Outdoor Swimmer article has info on which are open (latest update 2 June)
Broads Authority latest 5 June
Forestry England latest 5 June
British Canoeing (England): a return to paddling (updated June)
|Quotes from official sources
“Updated 5 June 2020
1.1 What can I do that I couldn’t do before?
There are a limited number of additional things you can do in England that you could not do before:
spend time outdoors, including private gardens and other outdoor spaces, in groups of up to six people from different households, following social distancing guidelines…
At all times, you should continue to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines when you are outside your home, particularly ensuring you are two metres away from anyone outside your household.
visit friends and family inside their homes
stay overnight away from your own home, except for in a limited set of circumstances, such as for work purposes
exercise in an indoor sports court, gym or leisure centre, or go swimming in a public pool
use an outdoor gym or playground
gather outdoors in a group of more than six (excluding members of your own household) …
1.2 I don’t have to stay at home anymore?
You should continue to stay alert and limit your contact with others. Staying at home is the easiest way to do this.
However, you can spend time outdoors and meet in groups of up to six. You should stay alert and always practise social distancing with people from outside of your household keeping 2 metres apart.
The more people you have interactions with, the more chance the virus has to spread. Therefore, try to limit the number of people you see – especially over short periods of time….
You should avoid using paddling pools and private swimming pools with people outside of your household….
1.12 Are there restrictions on how far I can travel for my exercise or outdoor activity?
No. You can travel to outdoor open space irrespective of distance, as long as you can return the same night and do not put others at risk because of services you may need in the time you are away. You should continue to avoid using public transport and should cycle, walk or drive wherever possible.
If visiting other parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – you must adhere to the laws and guidance of the devolved administrations at all times.
You shouldn’t travel with someone from outside your household unless you can practise social distancing – for example by cycling….
1.13 Can I use public transport if I’m seeing friends in a park or going to my parents’ garden?
You should avoid using public transport if you can. You should cycle, walk or drive wherever possible. Consider all other forms of transport before using public transport. If you need to use public transport, use should follow the safer travel guidance for passengers.
1.14 Can I share a private vehicle with someone from another household?
You should avoid sharing a private vehicle with members of another household as you will not be able to keep strict social distancing guidelines. The Department for Transport has provided specific guidance on using private vehicles. Please see their guidance on Private cars and other vehicles for more information on car sharing and traveling with people outside your household group….
1.15 Are day trips and holidays ok? Can people stay in second homes?
Day trips to outdoor open space are permitted as long as you can return the same night. You should make sure you do not put others at risk because of services you may need in the time you are away. You should practise social distancing from other people outside your household. You should continue to avoid using public transport if you can. Consider all other forms of transport before using public transport. If you need to use public transport, you should follow the safer travel guidance for passengers.
You are not permitted to stay overnight away from the place where you are living for a holiday or similar purpose. This includes staying overnight in a second home. If your work requires you to stay away from home you can do but should continue to practise social distancing….
1.17 Will public toilets reopen?
Councils are responsible for public toilets and this decision is up to them. You should avoid using the public toilet where possible. If you need to use any of these facilities, you should practise social distancing and good hygiene (i.e. washing your hands thoroughly).
1.18 Can I visit outdoor tourist sites? What about indoor ones?
Yes, you can still travel to outdoor areas, such as National Parks or beaches. Some venues are not allowed to be open so it is advisable to check ahead to ensure the venue is open to visitors.”
From Gov.UK: “Coronavirus outbreak FAQs: what you can and can’t do
The government updated this guidance – Coronavirus – guidance on accessing green spaces safely – GOV.UK. It includes:
“In England, you can now: … go swimming in either lakes or the sea as part of daily exercise provided that social distancing guidelines are observed – you cannot use public indoor and outdoor pools”
Note that the reason it mentions lakes and the sea is because that is what the prime minister specifically said in Parliament in May, and whoever drafted it didn’t appreciate that people also swim in rivers (and for that matter in other types of water) in England. It would be better if it was changed to add “rivers” as well as swimming in lakes and seas, and it also shouldn’t say “either”, but perhaps “open water such as…”
However I don’t think for a moment that we should assume that the guidance excludes swimming in rivers and other suitable water. Legislation for England doesn’t mention any specific types of water or for that matter swimming. The original and 13 May legislation did not specify what type of exercise (hence it being clear that swimming has never been banned in England).
The document published mid May emphasises that “The number of social contacts people make each day must continue to be limited” p24
SAGE advise that the risk of infection outside is significantly lower than inside, so the Government is updating the rules so that, as well as exercise, people can now also spend time outdoors subject to: not meeting up with any more than [one person from outside your household] [now total of 6]; continued compliance with social distancing guidelines to remain two metres (6ft) away from people outside your household; good hand hygiene, particularly with respect to shared surfaces; and those responsible for public places being able to put appropriate measures in place to follow the new COVID-19 Secure guidance.
People may exercise outside as many times each day as they wish. For example, this would include angling and tennis. You will still not be able to use areas like playgrounds, outdoor gyms or ticketed outdoor leisure venues, where there is a higher risk of close contact and touching surfaces. ….
People may drive to outdoor open spaces irrespective of distance, so long as they respect social distancing guidance while they are there, because this does not involve contact with people outside your household.
When travelling to outdoor spaces, it is important that people respect the rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and do not travel to different parts of the UK where it would be inconsistent with guidance or regulations issued by the relevant devolved administration.
These measures may come with some risk; it is important that everyone continues to act responsibly, as the large majority have done to date. The infection rate will increase if people begin to break these rules and, for example, mix in groups in parks, which will trigger the need for further restrictions.” p31, ‘OUR PLAN TO REBUILD: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy’, May 2020, CP 239, Download from https://t.co/zPUWwGS8si?amp=1
“We have all lived, so far, with onerous restrictions on outdoor spaces and exercise—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) interjects from a sedentary position. I know that he is a keen swimmer. Unfortunately we cannot do anything for swimming pools, but we can do something for lakes and the sea. This is where we can go significantly further, because there is a lower risk outdoors than indoors. So from Wednesday there will be no limits on the frequency of outdoor exercise people can take. You can now walk, sit and rest in parks, you can play sports and exercise, and you can do all these things with members of your own household, or with one other person from another household, provided you observe social distancing and remain two metres apart.” Transcript in Hansard
My earlier article from April and early May analysed the previous position from late March, when swimming was clearly not banned, though there were many factors making it more difficult. I won’t update it, and have removed it from public view.