Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is the Cabinet Member for Tourism and Culture on Rother District Council.
The circumstances of last year’s tragic deaths from drowning at Camber Sands in East Sussex have been recently reported following the outcome of the Coroner’s inquests. As one of the Rother district councillors for Camber, I have been closely involved in the arrangements following the tragic incidents of last summer in which our thoughts remain with the victims and their families.
What we have consistently maintained – and this has been reinforced by the Coroner in his conclusions – is that people from all communities need to be better informed of beach and water safety before they get to the beach. Rother District Council has worked with, amongst others, the Local Government Association, the RNLI, and the National Water Safety Forum – and national campaigns are well underway.
Figures published by the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF) in May this year show that 300 people in the UK drowned accidentally (or suspected) in 2016. Of these, 112 did not intend to be in the water (77 people died whilst out running or walking). The risk of drowning is low, but statistically higher than fire deaths in our homes or cycling deaths on our roads.
The NWSF Water Incident Database (WAID) details deaths by drownings by activity, age and location. Of note, in the UK, 83 per cent of drownings involve men of which the 19-29 age group is most at risk. A third involves alcohol. The World Health Organisation (Drowning Fact Sheet May 2017) reports that drowning is the third leading cause of ‘unintentional injury’ worldwide (360,000 annually – seven per cent of all injury-related deaths). WHO risk factors highlighted include age, being male, alcohol use, tourists unfamiliar with local water and risks, lower socioeconomic status, and being a member of an ethnic minority.
Camber receives 1.2 – 1.5 million visitors every year, drawn from a wide catchment. The demographic profile of visitors has changed over the last ten years, with an increase in visitors from Eastern European background and more recently, visitors of an Asian origin. The RNLI Camber risk assessment in 2016 included data on ethnicity for the first time – it is absolutely essential that we are abreast of all risk factors in order to put the most appropriate safety measures in place to help prevent further tragedies.
Immediately following these tragic deaths, Directors of Rother District Council met with the Local Government Association and raised the importance of national education and awareness of water safety. Last September, along with a senior RDC officer, I attended a meeting of the National Coastal Special Interest Group (which included representatives of coastal local authorities and the LGA).
We presented on the challenges at Camber and requested support for a national beach and water safety initiative to help educate visitors with the aim to avoid a repeat of such incidents around our coastline. The LGA offered its support to us in this initiative and agreed to contact other coastal authorities for relevant information and case studies. The LGA has since produced a 10 step Water Safety Toolkit Guide for Councils to assist them in ensuring that both local residents and visitors enjoy our natural environment, open spaces and leisure facilities safely.
Much of the media focus has been on the matter of lifeguards. There are always risks associated with water, and RDC has consistently provided good informational signage on water hazards, as per national guidance. Whilst focus has historically necessarily been on beach management to address the 95 per cent of incidents, a lifeguarding service was kept under regular review and RNLI lifeguards have been deployed at Camber Sands since the deaths last August. RNLI lifeguards patrol 240 beaches across the UK and in 2016 they aided 20,538 people and saved 127 lives.
Whilst evidence strongly suggests that lifeguard services benefit public safety by saving lives, lowering drowning rates and preventing injuries, it would be wrong – and unfair – to place all responsibility on lifeguards. Lifeguards are entrusted with the lives of others, but they cannot guarantee to save all lives, as even the best lifeguards can miss something while watching a crowded beach; drownings can occur quickly and quietly. We should all enjoy our beaches and water, but make sure that we understand the risks so that we come home safely.
Providing swimming lessons in schools and learning about water safety is essential. Our MP, Amber Rudd, wrote to the Department of Education on our behalf and it is very clear that the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon. Justine Greening MP, agrees that swimming and staying safe in the water are important skills for life. ‘Learning about swimming and water safety is compulsory as part of the National Curriculum for PE at primary level. Pupils should be taught to swim competently, confidently and proficiently over a distance of at least 25 metres. They should learn to use a range of strokes effectively and perform safe self-rescue in different waters based situations’.
Last year, the Government announced that it is doubling the primary PE and sport premium, which goes directly to schools to improve their provision. ‘Schools can choose to use this funding to provide additional training and instruction in swimming and water safety’.
We were advised that ‘although there are no current plans to include additional content on swimming in the National Curriculum from Key Stage 3 and beyond, secondary schools have the freedom to tailor their wider school curriculum and PSHE programme to include further teaching on water safety.
We are working with the sector, including the school swimming review group, to help ensure that no child leaves school unable to meet a minimum standard of capability and confidence in swimming. In addition, we regularly provide social media support to schools to direct them to free resources and schemes, including the Swim Safe Scheme run by the Amateur Swimming Association and the RNLI.
I would urge all schools across the UK to make and take all the opportunities available to ensure that the risk to our young people of all communities of drowning in open water is minimised.
RDC has long-held care and concern for the safety of visitors and local residents at Camber Sands and the verdict delivered by the coroner of ‘death by misadventure’ as well as the work that RDC has put in place for 2017-2020, along with the previous arrangements in place, have shown RDC to be a responsive and responsible authority. But water safety is an issue which affects all local councils in the UK. There is no statutory duty for them to provide lifeguards and therefore there is no formal governance structure available. A review of this – and of risk assessment management – is required, as well as consideration of resources available to local authorities to make better water safety provisions across the UK, reducing the risk of drowning in our waters.