As lockdown measures have been eased across England, people have been returning to beaches, parks and beauty spots to enjoy the warmer weather.
But they’ve found many public toilets are still closed, and without the option of using loos in cafes, pubs and restaurants, it has left scores of people with an urgent question – where do I go when I need to go?
Others have questioned whether public toilets will have to change in a post-lockdown world. So what’s the future of the public lavatory?
‘I’m scared to eat’
Toni Kelly lives with Crohn’s Disease, a condition that causes inflammation of the digestive system. She says she normally needs to use the loo six or seven times a day and has to plan her trips out of the house around access to a public toilet.
She says the absence of open toilets mean she is restricted to where she can go out and what she can do. Before a recent trip, she barely ate and took “lots of tablets” before she left to try to curb her need to use the loo.
“It’s not very comfortable having to do that, and then go out and feel hungry because I’m scared to eat in case I need to go to the toilet,” she says.
She’s not alone.
The charity Crohn’s and Colitis UK says boarded up public toilets are having a “massive impact” on people and has urged councils and other bodies to open them up “as soon as they can”, provided social distancing measures are “safely put in place”.
The charity’s campaigns manager, Sarah Hollobone, says it is not acceptable to push people with the chronic conditions “further into the shadows and heighten their isolation at a time when staying connected and healthy is harder than ever before”.
“This will not only dramatically improve the quality of life for people with Crohn’s or Colitis, but also people with other conditions that require toilet access”, she says.
It’s not just people with medical conditions that have been affected.
The lack of toilets has also made life difficult for pregnant women, young families and those who work outside or travel. Lorry drivers, many of whom have spent long periods of time on the road during the lockdown, have complained they have been forced to go to the toilet in the back of their trucks.
How has lockdown been eased in England?
Under current government guidance for England, people are permitted to:
- drive to outdoor spaces
- sit or sunbathe in public spaces
- take unlimited exercise – including using some sports courts or facilities
- meet one person from a different household outside
And now, as people are able to travel further from their homes and meet more people, the problem is likely to get worse.
While some public toilets are open, many of those in tourist spots saw huge queues for them over the bank holiday weekend. And with no pubs, hotels or cafe toilets available right now, residents in some beauty spots have reported that people are increasingly relieving themselves in public places.
June Day, whose house backs on to the sands of Brean Down, in Somerset, said people had also been using the beach as a toilet. She said her husband had seen “three lots of human faeces with discarded underwear” on a recent walk.
She pleaded with the National Trust to reopen its public toilets in the nearby car park.
The Trust said it was “working to open the toilets” as soon as it could.
But it warned it had to “get the balance right” between reopening many of its car parks to allow people to enjoy the countryside and “discouraging crowds from visiting rural places”.
A spokeswoman said opening decisions are being based on “local conditions” and toilets at their coast and countryside car parks will be reopened “where it is safe to do so”.
“Lots of people returning to coast and countryside hotspots can have a major effect on local communities and the emergency services,” she says.
Indeed a string of councils, tourist boards and other bodies have urged day trippers not to travel to their areas, warning they will be keeping their public toilets closed.
Indeed there could be a bigger problem going forward. Some local authorities say there isn’t the infrastructure to support social distancing rules and maintain facilities such as toilets and car parks.
So what is the future of the public toilet?
Raymond Martin, managing director of the British Toilet Association (BTA), said there would need to be a “complete rethink” of public toilets for the post-Covid age.
It could ultimately spell the end of the urinal, he says, as operators switch to individual cubicles with wash basins and baby changing facilities inside them.
As the virus is known to survive for longer on hard surfaces, he says different ways of cleaning public toilets and the viability of communal areas will need to be looked at.
He has previously said other potential solutions could include foot-operated flushes, self-closing seats and sensor-activated taps and soap dispensers.
He called on the government to “put some serious thought” into regulation and funding of changes to public toilets, saying they are a “human right and a human need”.
In the meantime, the government has said public toilets in England should be reopened where possible.
A statement from the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government 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.”
For people like Toni, that can’t come quickly enough.