On Sunday, May 10 around 30 million television viewers heard Prime Minister Boris Johnson announce a major change in the government’s Covid-19 guidance.
From that Wednesday, he said: “We want to encourage people to take more and even unlimited amounts of outdoor exercise. You can sit in the sun in your local park, you can drive to other destinations.”
Here in Thanet we knew exactly what that would mean, and we had all of two days to work out what we could put in place to manage it.
At any other time, we’d be delighted at the prospect of thousands travelling to our beaches, and so would the many businesses and traders who make their living from our visitors.
In this situation it has created major logistical problems, because those businesses are not open and the normal preparations for the season have not been put in place, never mind extra ones to manage hygiene and social distancing in our public toilets.
The vast majority of people using our beaches in the last two weeks, wherever they happen to live, have been respectful of the public health guidance and of each other.
Inevitably, though, some have not. Some behaviour has been completely unacceptable, and the fact that we could not safely open all our coastal toilets has not helped. But the situation is unprecedented, as is the closure of the toilets in pubs, cafes and shops.
We’re well aware that some people have argued that Thanet District Council should have sent a stronger public message not to come here, but there are a number of reasons why we didn’t do that.
We’re not, like Scotland and Wales, a devolved administration. We don’t have the power to make – and more importantly, enforce – rules about travel or going out.
What we’ve tried to do throughout the crisis is work in harmony with national government, the county council and other agencies like the police, to make sure there are no mixed messages to the public. It’s been no time for politics.
We might have been able to communicate a local message to Thanet residents. Our chances of getting it across to communities outside the district and securing their cooperation are slim. Others have tried, without apparent success.
If people do choose to come here, they are simply going to point to the Prime Minister’s advice. And neither we, nor the police, can send them away.
Even suggesting that we, as a district council, have that power is to mislead our residents. It could also legitimise conflict between locals and visitors, which is not the right approach when our economy is so dependent on tourism.
Neither are we able to enforce social distancing. All we can do, as we have, is reinforce that messaging and be as clear as possible that even some basic facilities are currently unavailable. We have deployed extra resources where we can.
We know that some residents are very upset by what has happened on some of the beaches on busy days and we share that frustration. We opened toilets on the main beaches last Saturday and have worked hard to put more facilities in place for this weekend.
Ultimately, however, the decision to allow people to travel to beaches was made and announced at short notice by the government. We can all have a view about that, but the council’s job, along with the police and other public services, is to manage the effects as best we can – not to try to play King Canute. That didn’t work out too well for him, after all.