The RNLI has come under fire following the deaths of three people at Britain’s beaches over the Bank Holiday weekend after it suspended coastal patrols.
The charity suspended coastline patrols amid the coronavirus crisis in March, but this has angered surfers and local lifeguard groups after three deaths in two days.
More casualties are now feared on unsupervised beaches after two deaths near Padstow in Cornwall on Monday, and a third at Teignmouth in Devon on Tuesday.
Meanwhile in Dorset, police and coastguard rescuers are searching for 17-year-old Oscar Montgomery snorkeler who went missing off Portland yesterday afternoon.
Dozens more people have been rescued by volunteer patrols who have mobilised to cover the gaps, with one in Sennen, Cornwall, responding on Tuesday to incidents involving seven people, including a mass rescue of four children stuck in rip tide.
Surfers have demanded the return of lifeguards with ‘no excuses’, with others saying the RNLI had ‘eight weeks with beaches being effectively closed to sort out a plan.’
The RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) has called on the Government to restrict access to beaches during half-term as it suspects sunseekers will take advantage of eased lockdown restrictions by heading to the coast.
It plans to restart patrols along the coastline at 70 of the usual 240 beaches this summer, but fears more casualties on unsupervised beaches.
A sign at the cark park at West Wittering beach in Sussex yesterday says ‘no lifeguard service’
Mark Dowie, chief executive of RNLI, had called on the Government to restrict access to beaches in an open letter following the tragedies in Cornwall.
These included the death of a 17-year-old girl when an inflatable boat capsized on the Doom Bar, not an area normally with lifeguard cover.
Search for missing snorkeler, 17, who vanished while diving off the Dorset coast
Police and coastguard rescuers are searching for a teenage snorkeler who went missing off Portland in Dorset.
Dorset Police said 17-year-old Oscar Montgomery was diving off the coast of Church Ope Cove on Wednesday and was last seen around 5pm.
Chief Inspector Lance Cliff said: ‘We are extremely concerned for Oscar and I am appealing to anyone who may have knowledge as to his whereabouts to please contact police immediately.’
Officers have been carrying out searches, assisted by HM Coastguard, the RNLI, Dorset Search and Rescue and Dorset Police.
Three helicopters – from the Coastguard, the Royal Navy, and Dorset police – are involved in the search, along with several water craft, HM Coastguard said.
And a man was pronounced dead after being pulled from the sea near Constantine by an off-duty RNLI lifeguard.
Then, a 22-year-old man died in Teignmouth on Tuesday evening after being rescued from the water by the RNLI when he got into difficulty while on a jet ski.
On Tuesday morning, Mr Dowie had defended the RNLI’s decision not to reinstate lifeguard patrols in time for the Bank Holiday weekend, instead blaming the government for not giving ‘more advanced notice’ of easing lockdown restrictions.
Mr Dowie stressed that everyone at the RNLI was ‘very sad’ about the deaths, but added they had not been given enough time to co-ordinate new policies and training to protect staff and volunteers from coronavirus.
However, the RNLI was criticised for being too slow to act by Oliver Huntsman, of Bude Surf Life Saving Club – the oldest in the UK.
Mr Huntsman insisted: ‘Paramedics did not stop for eight weeks to figure out how they could keep paramedics safe. They (RNLI) have had eight weeks with beaches being effectively closed to sort out a plan.’
Steve England, from surf magazine Carve, who was out surfing, said he and others gave CPR to the man in Constantine Bay who later died – and pulled him from the water while waiting for the coastguard helicopter and a lifeboat to arrive.
Surfing magazine Carve tweeted: ‘Put the RNLI lifeguards back on now! No excuses’
Emergency services were called to the seaside town of Teignmouth (file picture), Devon, on Tuesday following a 999 call reporting a man in the water after falling off a jet ski
An RNLI lifeguard keeps watch on a beach in Aberdour, Scotland, in July 2018 (file picture)
He said: ‘If we had a lifeguard on the beach we would have got oxygen to the casualty within two minutes but we had to wait 20 minutes.’
His magazine tweeted: ‘No RNLI lifeguard back up, no oxygen. Lots of ex-lifeguards to help but no equipment to save lives. CEO and bosses should resign. It is D-Day right around the coast. Lifeboat crews are disgusted with lack of leadership.’
Mr Dowie had also said the RNLI is facing a £45million funding shortfall by the end of the year due to fundraising activities being cancelled due to coronavirus.
The RNLI had a total net income of £186.6million in 2018, £51.5million of which was from donations and £122.5million from legacies.
Speaking on BBC Radio Cornwall Mr Dowie added there was ‘a chance’ the lives could have been saved if lifeguards had been on beaches as normal.
Gaisford Surf tweeted: ‘Heads should role (sic.) for this RNLI management debacle… RNLI put the final nail in the coffin with no lifeguard service. Utter madness’
Carve magazine tweeted: ‘No RNLI lifeguard back up, no oxygen. Lots of ex-lifeguards to help but no equipment to save lives. CEO and bosses should resign. It is D-Day right around the coast. Lifeboat crews are disgusted with lack of leadership’
One social media user said: ‘How much more tragic it could have been over the past few days… such an unnecessary situation you guys are going through’
Southend beach in Essex was packed yesterday as people enjoyed 81F temperatures
Another social media user commented: ‘Without lifeguard cover it was a matter of when rather than if. So sad. The RNLI has to do something about it’
Sun-seekers heading to UK beaches are getting themselves into trouble on unsupervised beaches, as one social media user – a lifeguard volunteer – explained on Twitter
Chris Lowry, a member of the Porthtowan surf lifesaving club, who helped in one of the rescues, said lifeguards want to get back to work.
‘We must choose between keeping the public or our lifeguards safe’: Full open letter by RNLI chief executive Mark Dowie
‘Despite our warnings that there were no lifeguards on patrol this weekend, crowded beaches, hot weather and big waves meant our lifeboat crews had their busiest weekend so far this year. At least two people lost their lives.
‘This puts the RNLI in an impossible situation. With thousands flocking to English beaches now lockdown restrictions have been eased, we must choose between keeping the public or our lifeguards safe.
‘Safety advice and warnings will only go so far when people are desperate to enjoy some freedom after weeks of lockdown. As a lifesaving charity, the RNLI cannot stop people going to beaches – but the government can – before more lives are lost around our coast this summer.
‘Rolling out a lifeguard service – especially in a pandemic – is not as simple as putting a lifeguard on a beach. We found out about the easing of lockdown restrictions in England at the same time and in the same way as the general public. Contrast that with shops, which were given three weeks’ notice and even car showrooms have been given 7-days warning to prepare.
‘We have to work out how to do in-water rescues and give first aid – normally conducted at close quarters and often with people coughing up water. We have to find PPE that will work on a beach and in the water – visors and aprons are no good on a rescue board. And we have to train our lifeguards in procedures to reduce the risk of infection. All this takes time and we learnt of the lifting of restrictions at the same time as everyone else.
‘Lifesaving is our priority. But the fundamental sustainability of the charity is also a consideration. Local authorities contribute just 20 per cent of the £20million needed to pay for a normal lifeguard season – the remaining £16million comes from RNLI donations. Right now, our charity faces an expected £45million shortfall in funding by the end of the year because many of our fundraising activities have had to stop.
‘So, we’re asking for help to manage an impossible situation – we’re asking the public to heed our safety advice and we’re asking the government to restrict access to the coast until we have lifeguard patrols back on beaches. Only then can we keep the public safe from the sea and our lifeguards safe from the virus.’
He said: ‘The lifeguards are ready to go. The weather is lovely, the surf has been lethal.’
He said the lifeguards are fit and healthy and even if they contracted Covid-19 he said ‘the opinion of most of the lifeguards is that they would make a full recovery’.
Cornwall councillor Pete Mitchell, whose patch includes Chapel Porth, said it was a ‘perfect storm’ caused by ‘large swell, wicked rip currents, good weather, Bank Holiday and no RNLI – it was a recipe for disaster and sadly that’s what we got’.
Pete Geall, who is part of the Sennen Volunteer Surf Patrol, said on Tuesday his team responded incidents involving seven people, including a mass rescue of four children stuck in rip tide.
He also tweeted about Matt Szlichta, who is normally a professional RNLI lifeguard at Sennen, but joined the delivery team at a Tesco store in Penzance during the lockdown.
However Mr Szlichta volunteered his time on Tuesday, on his day off, to help keep those on the beach safe and was directly involved in one of the rescues.
In an open letter, Mr Dowie wrote: ‘Despite our warnings that there were no lifeguards on patrol this weekend, crowded beaches, hot weather and big waves meant our lifeboat crews had their busiest weekend so far this year.
‘At least two people lost their lives. This puts the RNLI in an impossible situation. With thousands flocking to English beaches now lockdown restrictions have been eased, we must choose between keeping the public or our lifeguards safe.
‘Safety advice and warnings will only go so far when people are desperate to enjoy some freedom after weeks of lockdown.
‘As a lifesaving charity, the RNLI cannot stop people going to beaches, but the government can – before more lives are lost around our coast this summer.’
Mr Dowie said the RNLI found out about the easing of lockdown at the same time as the public and did not have time to prepare.
He explained the charity needed time to work out how to perform in-water rescues and give first aid in a way that protects staff from risk of infection. It also had to find personal protective equipment that will work on a beach and in the water.
He added: ‘We’re asking for help to manage an impossible situation – we’re asking the public to heed our safety advice and we’re asking the government to restrict access to the coast until we have lifeguard patrols back on beaches. Only then can we keep the public safe from the sea and our lifeguards safe from the virus.’
The RNLI has stepped up some patrols but is pleading with the public to stay away from the sea
Thousands of people turned up at the popular Sandbanks Beach in Poole, Dorset, on Wednesday, another hot day on the south coast
On Monday, emergency services were called to Treyarnon Bay, Padstow (pictured), at around 2.30pm, when a man was pulled from the water by a member of the public
The air ambulance lands near Padstow in Cornwall on Monday as the coastal area faced two nearby tragedies in one day
Speaking on BBC Radio Cornwall, Mr Dowie said there was a ‘chance’ the lives could have been saved if lifeguards had been on beaches as normal.
Asked why it had not been possible to reinstate lifeguards by the weekend, he said: ‘If we had more advance notice of everything changing… we would have been able to do it. But we had no advance notice – we heard when you did.’