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The UK’s Rise in Drowning Deaths

Samir Jeraj reports on how funding cuts, increasing costs, ageing facilities and climate change are all playing a role in rising numbers of deaths by drowning

Photo: Brian Jackson/Alamy

The UK’s Rise in Drowning Deaths

Samir Jeraj reports on how funding cuts, increasing costs, ageing facilities and climate change are all playing a role in rising numbers of deaths by drowning

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The number of people dying by drowning has been rising in the past three years, reversing a trend of falling numbers over the previous two decades.

In 2019, 233 people died, rising to 254 in 2020 and 277 in 2021. 

The UK’s heatwaves have been particularly deadly, as they tempted more people into the water but did not prepare them any better for what to do when they got into difficulties, and the likelihood of further heatwaves as a result of climate change is increasing.

Water safety is a key part of learning to swim, but this system is under threat.

“[Swimming] pools are under massive pressures in relation to their energy bills,” according to Jon Glenn, Swim England’s learn to swim and workforce director. Some pools have seen their bills rise from £3 million to £10 million, Glenn says – that has a very real impact on whether swimming pools can stay open.

Pre-pandemic, the UK’s ageing stock of pools was already under pressure. Many outdoor lidos that were built in the 1930s and leisure centres built in the 1990s are in need of renovation and replacement, but cash-strapped councils are reluctant to put the money in and private operators have chipped away at the income they had provided. 

Swim England estimates that 2,000 pools are at risk of closure across the country over the next decade due to lack of investment, with 100 potentially closing in the first half of 2023 due to energy costs alone. In response, the organisation has launched a Save Our Pools campaign. 

“We have an issue with education around water safety delivery to children because of pools having to shut because of the financial crisis or being impacted by COVID,” says Matt Croxall, senior head of memberships and field operations at the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS). “There certainly isn’t as much opportunity for kids to be out there in some areas and learning to swim, learning water safety.” This comes at the same time as demand for swimming lessons is rising, according to Swim England. 

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However, Croxall points out, being able to swim is not necessarily sufficient in all the situations that could end in loss of life in the water. The RLSS found that, of the under-18s that have drowned in recent years, 35% were described as being able to swim by their friends and family. That is why safety infrastructure, such as lifebuoys and lifeguards are crucial.

“I would say that we’ve got almost a crisis going on with that a shortage of lifeguards in some regions,” says Croxall. The ‘tried and tested’ route of young people learning to swim, joining a swimming club, and becoming a lifeguard is under pressure as pools come under pressure and wages struggle to keep people in the job or to attract new ones.

Another factor that has been blamed is the rise in open water swimming, which is much more challenging than swimming in a pool. The closure of pools during COVID meant more people were swimming in lakes and rivers, often with minimal or no safety measures in place.

“I think there was a degree of people during that warm weather of thinking ‘well, I’ll just go to my nearest river or reservoir or whatever it is’,” says Croxall. Even on the coasts, which traditionally have lifeguarded beaches, there have been issues with unsupervised swimmers getting into difficulties. The “invisible risks” include rip tides, unexpectedly deep or shallow waters, and obstacles on the seabed. 

Imogen Radford, inland access officer at the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS), says that while drowning deaths increased in 2020 and 2021, the longer-term trend has been downward and that swimming is still very low risk compared to other outdoor activities.

“The Outdoor Swimming Society wants to see swimming outdoors normalised, with access to places so that families and everyone can learn from an early age how to swim and stay safe in outdoor water,” she says. The OSS supports the National Water Safety Forum’s approach of targeting relevant safety information to those at risk and their strategy of focusing on teaching children to swim, considering water safety in the community, and raising awareness of risks and how to stay safe, Radford adds.

Inequality also plays a big factor. While data from Sport England shows 72% of pupils are leaving primary school being able to swim to the required standard, this drops to around about 30% in some deprived areas. Communities of colour also tend to have lower levels of swimming, with 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in England who do not swim. Alongside this, 93% of Asian adults and 70% of Asian children in England also don’t swim.

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“I had no idea of water safety,” says Ed Accura, co-founder of the Black Swimming Association. He started learning to swim for the first time in his 50s. “I couldn’t swim. My parents didn’t swim. If you’re growing up in a household where swimming is not a priority, then it becomes an issue when you are put in a situation whereby you are by the water.” It was this realisation that prompted Accura to learn, so he could help his daughter should she get into difficulty in the water.

“We have the swim sector who have been trying to get the community to swim,” he says. “But it’s not happened. Why has it not happened? Because there’s no engagement.” This is why Accura and others set up the Black Swimming Association. His work as a filmmaker has also helped open the conversation around misinformation, stereotypes and prejudices on all sides that are holding back action. 

Schools are still the key place where swimming and water safety education happens for most children. “We see it as the one touch point,” says Jon Glenn. However, he acknowledges the huge pressures schools are under to support children and families.

One positive is that some money is being made available to schools that have their own swimming facilities to bring them up to standard and open them up to other students who might not be able to access swimming otherwise.

“[What] none of us want is that school swimming is taken off the curriculum and the ownership is given back to the parents because we know that those more affluent parents will be signing up their children’s swimming lessons,” adds Glenn.

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