RNLI is in an “impossible situation” writes chief exec

In a powerful open letter, the RNLI’s chief executive, Mark Dowie has pointed out that car showrooms have been given more time to prepare for the easing of coronavirus restrictions than the volunteer lifeboat crews at seaside resorts like Swanage.

In the letter, he says that with no lifeguards on patrol, crowded beaches, hot weather and big waves, the lifeboat crews have had their busiest weekend across England so far. In two separate incidents along Cornwall’s coast, two people lost their lives.


Last weekend, the Swanage Lifeboat did not have to be called out, although it had attended three incidents in the week before, including a jet skier, two anglers and two children on paddleboards.

Photo taken at Old Harry Rocks on Bank Holiday Monday 25th May 2020 by an experienced local canoeist, who was shocked to see four men standing so close to the edge of the eroding cliff edge.

Several inflatables blown out to sea

Swanage Coastguard reported that it had had a busy Bank Holiday weekend:

“Several inflatables blown out to sea, one suspicious object, one tree removed from the highway, several road signs replaced having been blown over, lots of safety advice, working with partners like the National Trust, Dorset Police, Dorset and Wilts Fire, one group of people lead to safety from caves, one walker airlifted out of Dancing Ledge, Traffic Marshall’s on a gridlocked road, access routes checked and of course a few teas drunk.

“Whilst 99.9% of the population were grateful, a reminder, that it’s not the coastguard that controls the lockdown. We are here for your safety, not enforcing social distancing.”

“Think before you head to the coast”

The RNLI says that they would like to put lifeguards back on beaches as soon as possible but it has 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. It points out that visors and aprons are no good on a rescue board.

In the final paragraph of the letter, Mark Dowie concludes that the best advice at the moment is to follow the RNLI’s safety advice and think before you head to the coast.

Read the full text of the open letter

Dear Sir/Madam,

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 strike a balance that keeps the public and our lifeguards safe.

Safety advice and warnings will only go so far when people are desperate to enjoy some freedom after weeks of lockdown. But, as a lifesaving charity, the RNLI cannot stop people going to beaches.

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% of the £20M needed to pay for a normal lifeguard season – the remaining £16M comes from RNLI donations. Right now, our charity faces an expected £45M shortfall in funding by the end of the year because many of our fundraising activities have had to stop.

No-one is to blame for the situation we find ourselves in. We’re asking everyone to help manage an impossible situation, so please follow our safety advice and think before you head to the coast.


Mark Dowie

RNLI Chief Executive

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