Opinion: Council leader Rick Everitt – The issue of visitors to our beaches and how to safely open public toilets

District council leader Rick Everitt (Margate image John Horton)

Things change quickly in the current crisis. One of the major issues raised with councillors in recent weeks has been whether or not the usual seasonal dog restrictions should apply with the beaches out of action for all but brief daily exercise for the foreseeable future.

Within ten days of the dog restrictions coming into operation, however, the outlook changed completely with the Prime Minister’s announcement last Sunday that people were now free to travel as far as they chose in England and could sunbathe on beaches if they wish.

Whether or not any of us think that dispensation is sensible, it’s the government that has the expert scientific advice and is charged with making these decisions. As a district council, Thanet has to work out how best to manage any issues that arise.

At least one coastal authority in the South East responded earlier this week by asking visitors to stay away. Thanet does not want to take that position, but even if we did, it’s unlikely people across Kent and beyond in search of respite from the lockdown would pay much attention.

In fact, we never want to be in the position of dissuading visitors from discovering the natural beauty and charm of our slice of the coastline.

On the contrary, we want to showcase what our beaches have to offer, especially in an era when foreign travel is likely to remain difficult for some time. As and when the situation eases, we want visitors to see coming to Thanet as an attractive option.

Part of that, however, has to be making sure that we don’t compromise safety for residents, staff and visitors. Our public toilets have been closed since mid-March, and we already had major concerns about social distancing around their use just before the full lockdown.

Our toilet facilities are different from place to place, but they all pose their own challenges. We have been looking hard at how we can meet them, but many questions have remained.

Is the use of hand-dryers safe, because it reduces physical contact with surfaces that might carry the virus, or does it encourage the airborne spread of the disease?

Should we close urinals to avoid male users standing next to each other, or does this increase the risk of surface contact in cubicles and on doors?

What additional cleaning regime is needed and how can we safeguard the staff, potentially including the sourcing of medical grade PPE, which needs to be preserved for the NHS?

Is it physically possible to implement a one-way system, and how do we operate a distanced queue to prevent overcrowding? Does the rule have to be one-in, one-out?

Does a queueing system recognise that some people’s needs may be more urgent than others?

We considered hiring individual portable toilets to address some of these issues, but then the government published its own advice on Wednesday evening cautioning against that.

There are no simple solutions to these questions across the range of our facilities and the easy, but wrong, answer would be to open them all up as usual.

Instead, officers are working on specific solutions for individual facilities, starting with our main beaches, but in order to keep things safe we are not going to be ready immediately.

We know that will be frustrating to some, but as the speed with which the dog restrictions discussion has been overtaken shows, it has been very difficult to plan ahead.

Safety must come first, but residents can be assured that we are working hard to deliver it alongside the services that people need.

We want everyone to enjoy Thanet’s beaches and as soon as we can safely open some of the toilets to assist in that, we will.