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Shops in England might have reopened, but the same can’t be said for the country’s public toilets.
The government has urged councils to open such toilets “wherever possible” – and while many have plans in place, there are also areas where facilities are not yet available and won’t be for some time.
In Birmingham, public toilets are not expected to open until July because contractors are awaiting a delivery of PPE first, a Birmingham City Council spokesperson said.
Meanwhile Liverpool City Council said there will be a “limited number” of public toilets located at train stations and at Liverpool One’s Information Centre, adding that the number of people entering the toilets will also be limited. Information centre toilets will be closed for short periods every hour for cleaning, which will result in reduced capacity.
The lack of toilets during lockdown has proven to be problematic for certain groups of people who can’t leave the house without needing a trip to the loo.
Women are particularly impacted – firstly because it’s difficult to urinate freely in public like men do, but also because women are more likely to face additional issues like incontinence (which impacts one in three women) and menstruation.Those who have heavy periods, for example, will struggle to simply “pee in a bush”.
A Guardian investigation found women have been taking extreme measures such as deliberately dehydrating themselves during outings in lockdown so they won’t need to relieve themselves. One pregnant woman developed a urinary tract infection after being unable to find a toilet on a trip to Hyde Park.
Lack of suitable toilet facilities also impacts those with ill health or disability, the elderly, outdoor workers, and the homeless. In some cases, it forces people to become housebound, which adversely impacts wellbeing and mental health.
The lack of available toilets poses a hygiene and public health issue, too. People have been congregating in parks and on beaches for weeks now, and relieving themselves in bushes and against trees. Some residents living near Britain’s beaches have found human faeces in nearby sand dunes. And lockdown has exacerbated what was already a growing problem.
Since 2010, nearly 700 council-run toilets have closed. A report by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) last year revealed that concern over lack of toilets – dubbed the ‘loo leash’ – put as many as one in five (20%) people off venturing out of their homes as often as they would like.
Some councils have prioritised the reopening of public toilets. In London, Westminster City Council said that with the exception of the Broadwick Street site in Soho, all public toilets are open and operating normally. Entrance fee charges have been temporarily suspended to ensure people can access toilets and washing facilities more easily, while additional staff have been deployed to monitor cleanliness standards and deter anti-social behaviour.
In York, all public toilets have reopened with changes to the facilities including automatic flushes, automatic water and soap dispensers, replacing hand dryers with hand towels, and more regular and increased cleaning. Clear guidance will be placed in toilets such as social distancing floor stickers, advice on how to wash hands or use hand sanitiser, and instructions on not touching surfaces or handles.
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “While decisions to reopen public toilets are for councils, we strongly encourage them to open wherever possible. We’ve published guidance to help them ensure facilities are safe where they are open including increasing cleaning of touch points.”
A spokesperson for the Local Government Association said: “Councils have been working hard to make sure high streets and town centres are safe for businesses and shoppers and implement measures to help communities and high streets transition to our new way of life.
“Social distancing looks set to play some part in our everyday lives for some time to come. Shop owners and businesses along with the public have a shared responsibility to follow the advice on social distancing.
“Councils will be taking individual local decisions about public toilets based on a risk assessment and whether social distancing measures can be maintained.”