Children and young people need to be made more aware of the dangers of swimming in open water as the summer holidays get underway when accidental drownings typically peak, the Local Government Association warns today.
The warmer weather and a likely increase in “staycations” due to uncertainty over COVID-19 travel restrictions abroad, means young people may be more tempted to take a dip in the sea and other water settings – such as rivers, canals, lakes and quarries – but could be unaware of the dangers.
These include cold water shock – a leading cause of death in many drownings – which can increase a person’s breathing by tenfold, leading to a feeling of panic and possible cardiac arrest and loss of life.
The LGA is warning how even strong and confident swimmers can struggle and drown after jumping into cold and unpredictable open water where temperatures can be as low as 15C in the summer – half that of typical swimming pools heated to 30C.
New figures from the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF) show 223 people died in accidental drownings in the UK last year, of which 60 people drowned in July and August – the highest two-month total. The most prevalent age group for drowning victims was 20-24, with 30 deaths.
Many of these people had no intention of entering the water. Nearly twice the number of people drowned while walking or running (87) than swimming (44) last year, while others drowned while climbing or rescuing animals on the spur of the moment.
The NWSF figures also show that 16 people died after jumping or diving into water, including harbours, rivers, lakes and quarries.
The LGA is warning people not to “tombstone” – jump into water from height – due to the risk to life or serious injury.
It is also urging parents to teach their children about open water dangers, and for young people to be more aware of the drowning risks posed by tides and currents, inflatables, hidden dangers beneath the surface, and unstable ground on beaches, cliffs, river banks and towpaths.
These risks are compounded by research which shows that almost a quarter of children cannot swim the statutory 25 metres by the time they leave primary school and that an estimated 10 per cent of swimming pools – many run by councils – will close permanently due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The LGA says swimming or PHSE lessons need to cover water dangers in different swimming settings and all primary school leavers need to be able to swim 25 metres.
Anyone who falls into water can increase their survival chances by fighting their instinct to swim and float instead for a minute or two, which will help them to regain control of their breathing while the effects of cold water shock pass, before trying to swim to safety or calling for help.
Cllr Nesil Caliskan, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:
“We want people to stay safe and enjoy the warm summer weather, but the school holidays are typically when accidental drownings peak.
“Parents need to teach their children about water dangers and young people need to be more aware of the risks as it could save them from serious harm, or even their life.
“The risks posed by potential water hazards vary from place to place as rivers, lakes and seas vary in terms of deceptive tides, water temperature and currents. People should be aware of the dangers and always read safety signs.
“Being able to swim 50 metres in a calm, warm swimming pool does not mean someone will survive if they fall in a cold canal or a fast flowing river while out jogging or taking their dog for a walk.
“Teaching children about the dangers of open water while they learn to swim or as part of PSHE lessons would help them to understand the risks and improve water safety across the country.”
Anyone who spots someone in danger in open water is advised not to enter the water to rescue them, but to call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.