A few weeks back, a friend of mine was almost caught short on the way to work. OK, it wasn’t a friend, it was me.
When I say almost, I mean I very nearly didn’t make it. Of course, this isn’t a subject I’m thrilled to write about. But over the past few months, we’ve been highlighting the problem of public conveniences remaining closed ‘due to Covid’.
And, in all honesty, I’d been worried something like this would happen to me for some time. I was on a bus, which I’d already waited almost an hour for, now stuck in gridlocked traffic, when it dawned on me: I needed to go.
A while passed. The bus didn’t move. Actually, I really needed to go. A number of years ago I had bowel surgery and now, although things are relatively back to normal, I sometimes have a certain urgency. I realised this was going to be one of those times.
In June, the Government wrote to local councils explicitly stating that ‘enabling access to toilets is vital’, and gave detailed guidance for maintaining social distancing and hygiene
Hoping to cut my losses, I hopped off the bus and bolted over the road to a petrol garage. The loo, as I feared, was shut, with no explanation as to why. My next target was the large nearby park where I knew there would be public toilets. After speed-reading the park map and five minutes of rather strange sprint-walking, I found the first facility.
A sign was attached to the bolted-shut gate saying it was ‘closed until further notice in the interest of public safety… to reduce the spread of coronavirus…’ or some rubbish to that effect.
There was another loo, over the other side of the park. Another five minutes of agonised waddling later, I arrived to discover that too was locked up. At this point, I was so maddened that if there’d been a brick to hand, I’d probably have hurled it at a window.
I began to eye up outcrops of bushes – but really, none offered much privacy.
I know it sounds terrible, but I was absolutely desperate: trapped between two of the most humiliating situations imaginable. I decided on a last-ditch attempt to hold on to my dignity: flag a taxi, tell them to stop as soon as we passed a coffee shop, and pray.
Sweating, and semi-running along the pavement in a panic, I saw no cabs. But I spotted a pub having barrels delivered and beetled toward the assembled staff and deliverymen. ‘Please could I use your loo. I’m so sorry to ask but it’s a bit of an emergency,’ I grovelled.
They took pity and disaster was, thankfully, averted. However, two years back, closer to when I’d had those operations, it would all have been over long before finding that pub.
Of course, my story has raised a few laughs. It’s the way I tell ’em, I suppose. But really, almost soiling yourself is no joke – and this kind of nightmare scenario is becoming an all too horrible reality for thousands of Britons.
A worker tapes over locked doors to ensure that safe distance will be kept in an elementary school. More than 300 public toilets have shut since the start of the pandemic
Last week, we published the disappointing results of our own investigation which revealed that more than 300 loos have shut since the start of the pandemic.
In June, the Government wrote to local councils explicitly stating that ‘enabling access to toilets is vital’, and gave detailed guidance for maintaining social distancing (one-in, one-out rules, for instance) and hygiene.
But it appears this has not been universally heeded. In Aberdeen, the number of facilities has halved, while Gateshead in Tyne and Wear has culled them by nearly 80 per cent – leaving just ten in operation, compared with 46 at the start of the year.
In Calderdale, West Yorkshire, there were 27, now there are six. The three remaining council-run facilities in Bolton have all closed, as has the single public loo in Luton.
After highlighting this dereliction of duty, we were inundated with letters and emails from readers who had found themselves in distressing circumstances – older people, pregnant women, those with disabilities and parents alike.
From Inverness to Lyme Regis, this frankly disgraceful problem stretches the length and breadth of the country.
A number claimed there was not a single public toilet, or even one open in a cafe, in their town.
Loo closures had left many stranded at home, battling isolation, unable to go out to exercise and, in some cases, even attend medical appointments.
One reader, suffering from a bowel condition, said she’d actually been barred from using the loo at her local GP surgery.
Facilities have plummeted by more than a third in the past decade, and prior to all this the average council in England maintained just 15 public toilets per 125,000 residents
‘I had been called to attend the flu clinic, and needed the toilet urgently but was refused.
‘I was told to use the pub across the road but it was too late, and I had to go home, humiliated, tearful, and feeling shame sitting in the car next to my husband.’
In one heartbreaking email, a woman from West London explained that she’d been unable to tend to her daughter’s grave as the loos on the way there and at the cemetery were all still closed.
Many readers who once enjoyed simple things like walking found they’d had to stop. ‘I’d like to live a normal life, but I can’t because of lack of toilets,’ was a typical line.
Some reported deliberately dehydrating themselves or taking medication to prevent accidents: ‘I have diverticular [bowel] disease and irritable bowel syndrome,’ wrote one woman. ‘I wear pull-on incontinence pads most of the time, going out is really difficult and I take Imodium [medicine to treat diarrhoea] most days just so I can do my shopping.
‘I then have to take a laxative to empty my bowel.’
Another wrote of her ‘nightmare’ situation: ‘I have an adult son with a learning disability. We used to meet up for walks but can’t now as there are no toilets open – even disabled loos are locked.’
The problem, says Tom Riley, who runs website Lockdown Loo, a digital map of currently open toilets across the UK, may be getting worse, not better. He says they are getting reports every day from members of the public saying once-open loos are now shut.
Those with registered disabilities in many areas can apply for a RADAR key, which provides access to locked accessible toilets, but even these remain shut in many areas
‘Just yesterday, we were told that Portaloos that had been installed in one park, in Lambeth, South London, had been removed – but the toilet they were supposed to replace hadn’t been reopened either,’ he adds.
This is the same Lambeth Council – my borough, as it happens – that has employed ‘park police’ to issue £150 fines to anyone caught weeing against a tree, rather than hiring someone to do something useful, such as a cleaner to make sure more toilets remain open.
‘It feels like, in many areas, things are becoming more restrictive, rather than less,’ Riley says.
‘I’m guessing that, as lockdown measures get stricter again, councils are thinking they don’t need loos any more, so are getting rid of them.’
Some of the reasons given for closures seem absurd: ‘The hand dryers are too close together,’ a council worker declared to one reader, while another informed a pensioner that using the toilet at the local library was ‘illegal’.
A few weeks prior to my own close call, I’d had a similarly frustrating dash back home while out with friend. The toilet in the cafe where we met was shut.
When I asked the waiter why, he pointedly said: ‘Do you want us be put at risk?’
What risk, I asked?
‘Err, the virus?’ Came the reply, in a ‘you must be a moron to even ask such a thing’ kind of way. I’m still baffled as to just what risk he believed he’d be exposed to.
It’s a maddening ‘Covid-says-no’ attitude that seems to be creeping into every aspect of life. And, of course, in terms of loos, pandemic ‘restrictions’ have also exacerbated an already dire problem.
Bob, from Thurrock pointed out: ‘At present they do not have ANY public toilets in Thurrock. When McDonald’s closed, pubs closed, restaurants closed and shopping centres closed, there were no options left. I wrote to our local MP, Jackie Doyle-Price, but she said that this was not in her remit – that it is Thurrock Council’s decision.’
But Ms Doyle-Price, I fear, is being disingenuous. As a former junior Health Minister, no less, she should know full well that local authorities are not legally required to provide toilets – and scores have closed as councils look to cut costs.
Facilities have plummeted by more than a third in the past decade, and prior to all this the average council in England maintained just 15 public toilets per 125,000 residents. Many of those that remain now charge. Fifty pence to spend a penny? Outrageous – but often there’s little choice.
Businesses that provide facilities for their customers have no legal duty to do so for non-customers, although some turn a blind eye.
Charities and hospitals now provide cards for those who struggle to hold on because of medical conditions – so that you don’t have to plead with a grumpy pub landlord or barista.
It’s a maddening ‘Covid-says-no’ attitude that seems to be creeping into every aspect of life. Pandemic ‘restrictions’ have also exacerbated an already dire problem, writes Barney Calman
But having to brandish one of these is, of course, an embarrassment in itself. I’m not the only person I know who’s developed expert knowledge of the cheapest items in a bar or sandwich shop which, once purchased, allows access to their ‘customers only’ convenience. But it shouldn’t be like this.
Those with registered disabilities in many areas can apply for a RADAR key, which provides access to locked accessible toilets, but even these remain shut in many areas, according to local newspaper reports.
If none of this has affected you, you’re lucky, for a start. And you may feel this is the least of our worries right now.
So I’ll leave you with this, from one reader in Hurley, Oxfordshire: ‘When lockdown eased in August, we started visiting the Thames footpath for walks. The public toilets were closed and have remained so.
‘It’s a beauty spot, and visitors come from far and wide, often with children – and now, people are defecating wherever they can find a spot. We were a civilised country. Stop this please!’