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‘Open the Hampstead Heath Ponds and Lido’: Swimmers, Catherine West MP and Alastair Campbell urge government U-turn

PUBLISHED: 13:52 11 November 2020 | UPDATED: 10:34 12 November 2020

Alastair Campbell at Parliament Hill Lido, which remains closed. Picture: Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell at Parliament Hill Lido, which remains closed. Picture: Alastair Campbell

Archant

Swimmers, a local MP and Tony Blair’s former communications chief have urged Downing Street to reconsider the closure of the Hampstead Heath Bathing Ponds.

Swimmers take the plunge at Parliament Hill Lido. Picture: Lewis Whyld/PASwimmers take the plunge at Parliament Hill Lido. Picture: Lewis Whyld/PA

The City of London Corporation, which manages the Ponds and Parliament Hill Lido, wrote to the government asking to keep open its outdoor swimming and sports facilities during the national Covid lockdown – with social distancing measures – to protect people’s physical and mental health.

Swimmers’ associations, Catherine West MP and Gospel Oak journalist Alastair Campbell have joined the CoLC’s call.

On November 5, swimming pools and sports facilities closed and could reopen on December 2 if restrictions are not extended.

Ms West, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Swimming, said: “Whilst clear that action needs to be taken to control the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic the closure of Hampstead Heath as an open water swimming space is short-sighted and wrong.

“There is strong evidence demonstrating the limited impact swimming has on the virus and it is time the government based their actions on evidence, not on opinion.”

Catherine West MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Swimming. Picture: Polly HancockCatherine West MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Swimming. Picture: Polly Hancock

The Hornsey and Wood Green MP added: “I know many who swim Hampstead Heath ponds cherish it as a way to stay fit and healthy and exercise is a key gateway to good mental health.

“The government has backtracked on swimming before, during the first lockdown, and they need to do so again.”

David Gilbert, chair of the Highgate Men’s Pond Association, said he opposed the Ponds’ closure and challenged the decision’s benefit to public health.

He backed Swim England’s #OpenOurPools campaign, and a petition to government – which has more than 30,000 signatures – calling for outdoor pools and lidos to stay open.

Mr Campbell, Downing Street’s former press secretary and now a mental health campaigner, said: “It is unbelievably frustrating to walk past the Lido and the Ponds every day with the dog, with the Heath packed with people out walking, and see nothing but the gulls using these wonderful facilities.

Swimmers in the Hampstead Heath mixed bathing pond. Picture: Aaron Chown/PASwimmers in the Hampstead Heath mixed bathing pond. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA

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“The Heath did a great job making the facilities Covid-secure, and the regular exercise has been brilliant for the mental and physical health of so many.

“I get why the government has to make difficult decisions, but it is as a result of their consistent failings in policy and messaging that we are now in this second lockdown, and the instrument being used is so blunt.”

In a joint statement, Ruth Hallgarten and Mary Powell, chair and vice-chair of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Association, said: “It is very disappointing for many regular pond swimmers that we will be prevented from accessing swimming for the next month due to lockdown restrictions.

“This will have an impact on our habituation when it is possible to resume swimming.

Diving into the Ponds in happier times. Picture: Yui Mok/PADiving into the Ponds in happier times. Picture: Yui Mok/PA

“Many individuals and organisations sought an exemption from outdoor sport facilities but this has not been granted.

“As an association we do now have to respect the terms of the lockdown, and urge our members to do likewise.

“It is important not to put frontline workers on the Heath at risk or to place an additional strain on the NHS and emergency services.”

Ruth and Mary said they hoped to be back in action on December 2, when nationwide Covid restrictions are due to ease.

Anne Fairweather, the chair of the CoLC’s Hampstead Heath management committee, said: “I know that the Heath will be crucial for the local community’s physical and mental health during this second lockdown.

“That is why I have written to the government, asking them to consider keeping outdoor sports open, such as swimming, tennis and running on the track, during these national restrictions, with strict social distancing and other Covid-secure rules.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We recognise how important exercise is for people’s physical and mental health and that’s why it has always been classed as an essential activity.

“Indoor and outdoor sports facilities remain closed to limit the spread of the virus but we will look to reopen when it is safe to do so.”

READ MORE: View from the Heath: I’ve called for outdoor sports facilities to be allowed to stay open


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