The RNLI has called on the government to restrict access to beaches after the charity faced a wave of criticism for not having resumed its full lifeguard service as lockdown restrictions eased.
The lifeboat charity has been attacked on social media after it was reported that two people died over the weekend near beaches where the charity had suspended its lifeguard patrols.
During the coronavirus lockdown, the charity reduced its lifeguard service, patrolling just 70 beaches rather than its usual 240, and issued warnings to beach users telling them to avoid the water and be aware of the lack of lifeguards.
Mark Dowie, the charity’s chief executive, said in an open letter to the government that easing the lockdown restrictions had placed the charity in an “impossible situation” in which it had been forced to “choose between keeping the public or our lifeguards safe”.
The RNLI plans to restart patrols in phases from the end of the month, but was criticised on Twitter for not having services up and running already, particularly by the right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins, who accused the charity of having “refused” to provide lifeguards and having “looked the other way”.
But in his letter Dowie said that rolling out the service during a pandemic was “not as simple as putting a lifeguard on a beach”.
He said: “We have to work out how to do in-water rescues and give first aid, which is normally conducted at close quarters and often with people coughing up water.
“We have to find PPE that will work on a beach and in the water. Visors and aprons are no good on a rescue board.
“And we have to train our lifeguards in procedures to reduce the risk of infection. All this takes time, and we learnt of the lifting of restrictions at the same time as everyone else.”
In contrast, he said, shops were yesterday given three weeks’ notice that they might be able to reopen and car showrooms were given a week to prepare.
“Safety advice and warnings will only go so far when people are desperate to enjoy some freedom after weeks of lockdown,” he said.
“As a life-saving charity, the RNLI cannot stop people going to beaches. But the government can, before more lives are lost around our coast this summer.”
Dowie also suggested that the cost of the service was an issue, saying that local authorities contributed just 20 per cent of the £20m needed to pay for a normal lifeguard season, with the remaining £16m coming from donations. The charity expected to experience a £45m shortfall in fundraised income as a result of the pandemic, he said, and the fundamental sustainability of the charity had to be taken into account.
He said it would only be possible to keep the public safe from the sea and the charity’s lifeguard safe from the virus with help.
“We’re asking the public to heed our safety advice, and we’re asking the government to restrict access to the coast until we have lifeguard patrols back on beaches,” Dowie said.