When lock down first started, the media and governing bodies were quick to point out that swimming outdoors was not permitted (article from The Independent) however, these announcements did not stand up to what the original lock down laws stated and there was no specification in law about what type of exercise was and was not permissible, each nation later evolved the legislation to their own lands. But after some unusual measures in the early stages of lockdown, such as Police dying lakes black, and some nations banning outdoor swimming completely, I had to ask myself were outdoor swimmers disproportionately hard done by?
Below is a section from the original publication on Leaving Home To Exercise (guidance) by The Welsh Government:
"...there is an expectation that the reasonable excuse to exercise does not include activities that involve a significant degree of risk (for example swimming or other exercise at sea, or in lakes, rivers or other waterways). Exercise, therefore, should be done locally and generally be limited to walking, running and cycling."
Between 2014 and 2018 the drowning fatality totals in the UK were:
There are several other "groupings" of people who drown such as angling, commercial, powerboating etc. but the largest grouping is consistently walkers/runners. Without the total numbers partaking in each activity it's hard to fully assess risk, but at the very least, this highlights why it is important for all of our society to be able to swim, and cope with immersion.
WHY WAS SWIMMING SINGLED OUT?
A key problem is that the term "swimming" is used loosely. Often anyone in water is called a swimmer (particularity by some reporters), even though they may have never swum in open water before, or may not know how to swim.
In the first weekend after water activities were "allowed" (16th - 17th May in England) there were 194 rescues reported by HM Coastguard, none of which involved swimmers:
"Coastguard rescue teams from around the UK were called out 194 times to incidents including inflatables drifting offshore, crashed and broken down jet-skis and pleasure boats, people injured while out walking or cycling along the coast, paddle boarders, kayakers, windsurfers and kite surfers who found themselves in difficulty and people cut off by the tide or stuck in mud." published on HM COASTGUARD official social media accounts.
During the last weeks of May there were several coastal fatalities involving people jumping off cliffs, upturned boats, jet-skis, kayaks, and surfers. Participation in these activities often includes high speeds and hard objects, unlike swimming at, say 2 mph, unless you get hit by a Jet-ski.
As a RNLI Beach Lifeguard, and keen swimmer, I realise the awkward position HM Coastguard and the RNLI have been in during this uncertain time. That said I can't help get frustrated with how swimming is portrayed as a higher risk activity than many others. The evidence simply doesn't stack up.
PRESSURE ON THE NHS
In 2018, 99 cyclists were killed, 4106 seriously injured and 13345 slightly injured in Great Britain (from ROSPA). That's one heck of a pressure on the NHS. I tried to find stats on serious injuries to swimmers. Nothing. It makes sense, in swimming you are generally travelling less than around 2mph.
The cycling website road.cc reports "Cyclist deaths double during lockdown at twice the average for the time of year".
Returning to the Welsh Government's guidelines "exercise should not include activities that involve a significant degree of risk". Which is more risky cycling or swimming? Which activity will put the most pressure on the NHS? The evidence points to cycling. Indeed running, walking, and DIY could also be up there.
Some would argue that smokers and the obese lead the way in putting pressure on the NHS, indeed in Wales heart disease is the biggest cause of death with around 9,500 deaths per year. Many of these deaths could be prevented with healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle change.
I know of three members of my extended family who attended A & E during the "lockdown" period. All of these injuries happened at home or in the garden. This isn't surprising, when I think of the all the times I or members of my family have had to go to A & E the accidents overwhelmingly occur at home. Never after going swimming.
It wasn't long ago that Dr Chris van Tulleken (the doctor who gave up drugs) advocated outdoor swimming as a treatment for depression (BMJ Article here). Note - the number of drownings classed as suicide are on the rise.
Is swimming mis-represented at authority levels? If you are an adult who can't swim do you become anti-swimming? Are you resentful that your school or parents didn't teach you to swim? I think I would be. Does this skew your perception of the risks involved with swimming? Do decision-makers see swimming as a life-skill? And if not then why is swimming the only sport to be included within the national curriculum?
In 2019 I volunteered in the delivery of the superb Swim Safe program organised by The RNLI & Swim Wales, it was notable how many parents asked if their was a similar course for adults.