Surf Life Saving NSW has cancelled all beach patrols due to the “current COVID-19 emergency”, effective immediately.
It means patrols on beaches up and down the state’s coast will end four weeks ahead of the end of the season, leaving beaches unmanned by volunteers over the Easter school holidays.
“The unprecedented decision was made to protect the safety and welfare of volunteer surf lifesavers from potential infection by the COVID-19 virus and to discourage large gatherings of people on popular beaches,” the water rescue organisation said in a statement today.
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SLSNSW President George Shales said it was becoming “increasingly difficult” to continue beach patrols while also implementing the “necessary social distancing measures” to protect surf lifesavers from the risk of infection.
“With the Easter school holiday period approaching – and a large number of families expected to head to the coast – cancelling patrols has been an enormously difficult decision for the Board but one that we feel safeguards our members while sending a message to the public about the need for social distancing at this time,” he said.
Surf Life Saving chief executive Steven Pearce said, on average, at least five people drown on the NSW coast and another 650 are rescued between now and the end of April each year.
“We are very concerned about the potential for increased drownings without our surf lifesavers on duty and I want to send a clear message to the public about the need for heightened vigilance and caution. We strongly warn that no one should swim at an unpatrolled location and exercise caution whilst recreating on the coastline,” he said on Friday.
Jet skis and rescue boats will provide a “roving presence” while emergency call-out teams will be on standby.
Beaches in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs were closed after thousands of people packed Bondi Beach last Friday.
“In response to new measures introduced by the state government that limit the number of people on any beach to 500, some beaches and harbour pools are closed until further notice,” the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage said.
“This is to encourage appropriate social distancing (1.5m between people) and to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Please contact councils for local beach conditions.”
Earlier this week, Mr Shales told the ABC some lifesavers had withdrawn from patrols “because of the environment they’re being put under” including being “harassed” by members of the public.
“Which is absolutely unacceptable from my position,” he said.
Speaking of the scenes at Bondi, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “It is important that serves as a wake-up call for the entire country to ensure they take these social distancing policies very seriously”.
As of Friday morning there had been 1405 cases of coronavirus confirmed in NSW, out of 77,689 tests.
Nineteen people are in Intensive Care Units and nine of those patients require ventilators, NSW Health said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has pleaded with vulnerable people to stay at home.
In an update last week, Life Saving Victoria said it is closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation and following advice from the health department.
“At the present time, our emergency response search and rescue activities, including our lifesaving patrol services at beaches across the state, will continue with additional protective measures,” LSV said on March 16.
In Queensland, red and yellow flags will no longer be placed on the beach to mark designated swimming areas but beach surveillance will continue.
“This decision has been made to protect the health and safety of our surf lifesavers and lifeguards, while also seeking to limit the number of people congregating within a confined space between the flags,” Surf Life Saving Queensland said in a statement on Thursday.
“Surf lifesavers and lifeguards will have access to all relevant gear and equipment, ensuring they can respond to incidents which may arise.”
In addition, councils across Queensland have closed pools and lagoons due to the coronavirus outbreak.