COVID doesn’t spread on crowded beaches, government adviser says

Watch: Government advisor: 'Not a single COVID outbreak linked to crowded beaches’

There has “never” been a COVID outbreak linked to a crowded beach, a leading government adviser has said.

Professor Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh and an adviser to the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told the Commons science and technology committee that beaches are not a hotbed for coronavirus transmission.

Beaches packed full of people were a common sight last summer as the UK experienced a heatwave while lockdown restrictions were still in place, drawing international criticism over an apparent lack of social distancing during the pandemic.

However, Woolhouse dismissed any notion that there was an uptick in cases as a result.

Asked about the risk of transmission in outdoor activities, he said: “Mass gatherings are absolutely a special case. Even outdoors they don't involve social distancing so those are clearly higher-risk than normal outdoor activities.

People enjoy the hot weather at Bournemouth beach in Dorset. (Photo by Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)
People enjoy the hot weather at Bournemouth beach in Dorset over the 2020 summer. (Getty)

“But, for example, over the summer we were treated to all this on the television, news, pictures of crowded beaches and there was an outcry over this.

“There were no outbreaks linked to crowded beaches. There has never been a COVID-19 outbreak linked to a beach ever anywhere in the world to the best of my knowledge.”

He added: “We do have to understand where the risks are or aren’t.”

Last year, international newspapers described scenes of Britons flocking to beaches as “unbelievable” and “shocking”, as thousands descended on seaside resorts despite the coronavirus pandemic.

In June, sun worshippers packed out seaside hot spots such as Brighton and Bournemouth as temperatures soared above 30C.

Chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty urged people to follow social distancing rules in the hot weather or risk causing a spike in coronavirus, writing on Twitter: “If we do not follow social distancing guidance then cases will rise again.

“Naturally people will want to enjoy the sun but we need to do so in a way that is safe for all.”

BRIGHTON, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 08: Brighton beach is packed as the South of England basks in a summer heatwave on August 08, 2020 in Brighton, United Kingdom. Parts of England are enjoying a three-day heatwave with temperatures set to reach up to 38 degrees centigrade in the South East. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Brighton beach is packed during a summer heatwave in August last year. (Getty)

It comes as Boris Johnson prepares to outline how England’s current lockdown rules will be relaxed as the vaccine continues to be rolled out.

The prime minister, who has made it clear that schools reopening would be the priority, said this morning that the government’s plans will “be based firmly on a cautious and prudent approach”.

Government sources have indicated outdoor exercise and socialising will be among the first activities to be permitted due to lower risk of transmission outside,

Woolhouse, who was being questioned by MPs on the risks of lockdown restrictions being eased in the coming weeks and months, said the country was slow to reopen schools and outdoor activities in the first lockdown.

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He said: “I think we probably could have considered reopening schools much sooner in the first lockdown.

“The other thing, quite clearly, is outdoor activities. Again, there was evidence going back to March and April that the virus is not transmitted well outdoors.

“There’s been very, very little evidence that any transmission outdoors is happening in the UK.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits a vaccination centre at Cwmbran Stadium in Cwmbran, south Wales on February 17, 2021. (Photo by GEOFF CADDICK / POOL / AFP) (Photo by GEOFF CADDICK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson is preparing to announce plans to relax lockdown restrictions. (Getty)

“Those two things, I think, could have been relaxed sooner in the first lockdown.”

Woolhouse said the data on vaccines is pointing to “earlier unlocking”, adding: “I completely agree that we don’t want to be overly focused on dates, not at all. We want to be focused on data. But the point I’d make about that is the data are going really well…

“My conclusion from that is if you’re driven by the data and not by dates, right now, you should be looking at earlier unlocking.”

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown