The WC in lockdown and beyond

In which lockdown is enforced not so much through policing as through closure of public conveniences

Our lockdown in the UK was never particularly strict, and even at the height of it the parks remained open and were usually full of people. The rule was that you could go out to exercise once a day, but there were plenty of people who were clearly not exercising, just sitting around, enjoying being outside. 

And why not indeed? Not everyone exercises, and it seems a bit unfair to make people stay indoors just because they don’t want to or can’t exercise. Plus, fresh air and sunshine and changes of scenery are also important to your health.

I never saw the “one-exercise-outing-a-day-and-you’d-better-be-exercising” rule being monitored or enforced in any way. In fact, I rarely saw any police around at all. But perhaps official nagging was not necessary. Because here’s the thing: nobody was going to be spending excessive amounts of time out and about anyway, because there was nowhere to powder your nose. 

The official explanation was that keeping public conveniences covid-proof would have meant untenable amounts of maintenance. Someone would have had to go in to disinfect every surface every time they were used, and in some places at busy times there can be a near-constant stream (sorry) of people coming and going, making such cleaning operations difficult. But I have no doubt that it was also a tactic to keep people at home, especially judging by one sniffy comment I saw made by some government figure to the effect that “Well, if people are staying home, as they should, they shouldn’t need to be using public toilets anyway”. (He didn’t offer any suggestions for people who don’t have a home, and I’ve been wondering how they have been managing. I know emergency measures were put in place at the beginning of the lockdown to get as many people as possible off the streets and into accommodation, in some cases repurposing hotels that had had all their bookings cancelled because of the pandemic, but I’m sure there were plenty of people who fell through the cracks.)

You would think that once the lockdown measures were relaxed, loos would be reopened to cater to the people who are now flocking to parks and beaches and buying drinks from bars and cafes. But no. Bars and cafes may have reopened, but you have to buy your drink and go – their loos are closed; nor have facilities in most parks or other public areas been opened. 

A sign that just appeared recently

It has become a real issue. There is a proliferation of news articles in which people who live near beaches or on side streets near bars complain about how they have to keep storming out into their gardens or poking their head out their doors to shoo away people who are looking for a quiet place to answer nature’s call. 

To be fair, the closure of loos is probably not only about controlling people’s behaviour: the issue of how to keep them clean and covid-free probably really is an obstacle to reopening them. 

The thing is, a lot of them were never very well designed in the first place, if you ask me (and if you’re reading this, you’re asking me). Why don’t mass-use facilities have automatic doors as standard, to allow you to exit without touching a handle with your just-washed hands? Maybe because automatic doors are expensive. Fair enough, but why do doors almost always open inwards, meaning you have to pull on a dirty handle with your clean hand rather than pushing the door open with your foot? Probably because an outward-opening door could bash into someone walking past on the other side. OK, but who says you need a door in the first place? A lot of airports and shopping centres have strategically placed chicane-style walls, which achieve the same level of privacy without the need for a door at all. 

And taps! We live in an era in which pedal-operated taps, knee-operated taps and a million models of sensor taps are available. So why, everywhere I look, do I see taps with handles? The helpful-but-not-really-helpful articles on the subject tell you to use paper towel to touch the tap handle, but what if there’s no paper towel? Are you supposed to go into the germy cubicle and take a germ-infused piece of toilet paper to use instead of paper towel? 

And on the subject of germy cubicles, do you know why they are germy? Because people flush with the lid up. As the flush water hits the bowl water, it creates an aerosol (or an, ahem, “toilet plume”), which bursts up out of the toilet bowl, bearing particles of whatever was in the bowl when you flushed, and diffuses throughout the space, the droplets either being inhaled by you as you scramble to get out or settling on nearby surfaces. 

You can block most of this toilet plume (80%, according to this article) by putting the lid down before you flush. The thing is, you may be meticulous about putting the lid down, but if the person in there before was not so meticulous, you will be breathing in their aerosol.

You can force people to close the lid by having the flush button positioned so that it can only be accessed when the lid is down. Why is this not a standard configuration?

To be fair, in the normal course of things, the germiness is not worth having hysterics over. Most of the germs that you’re likely to come into contact with in bathrooms don’t survive long on bathroom surfaces, and the ones that do are unlikely to make you sick. (Here’s a reassuring article with more details.) 

But trying to prevent a second covid wave is not the normal course of things. The coronavirus can be carried in faecal matter, which makes it particularly important for facilities with heavy footfall – in offices, restaurants, parks, etc. – to be kept sanitised. It might even be appropriate to rip out existing facilities and reinstall better ones.

Peter Collignon, a professor of infectious diseases and microbiology who has advised WHO committees, says: “Infection control and protections should be as vital to bathroom design as fire safety.”

Boeing is onto it, with its prototype for an entirely sensor-controlled loo (although I can’t work out if you have to touch the door on your way out) that is automatically sanitised with ultraviolet light after every use. 

This is not an issue that can be procrastinated over for too long. The lockdown is lifting, with a view to getting the economy buzzing again, but if people have to stay near their homes because of a lack of facilities further afield (if they are constrained by a short “loo leash”, in the jargon), the relaxing of the lockdown measures won’t achieve much.
Raymond Martin, the managing director of the British Toilet Association (there is a British Toilet Association. Is that not a wonderful thing?) says: “We want to bring back life to this country and toilets are a vital part of that”.

It’s not just about making facilities available; you also want to make sure that people trust their cleanliness. Keeping them clean should be an act of theatre. There should be a loud, bustling attendant in a mask and gloves making a performance over splashing disinfectant around and scrubbing every surface. Self-cleaning loos should rumble and judder and emit scents of lemon and pine. (People like that sort of thing. They only started buying Febreze when the marketing people stopped focusing on how Febreze made your clothes clean and started making a big deal about how it makes your clothes smell clean. And I read about some ultra-quiet dishwasher model that wasn’t selling well – but as soon as it was tweaked to make it noisy, people started raving over how well it washed. It’s all about how you make people feel.)  

If you want to learn more about how profoundly the availability of public conveniences can shape society, can I recommend starting with this article, entitled “Women’s right to sit comfortably”? 

5 thoughts on “The WC in lockdown and beyond

  1. First of all compliments for writing a post on this that i didn’t know i needed but now i realize is very important! I just noticed today when we stopped at a ski lodge in the mountains that they had signs up as well about who could use their bathroom (they said it was related to coVid, but Antonello believes that’s just an excuse). Lots of little changes like this one are going to help us establish a BC (before CoVid) and AC (after CoVid) set of rules. And long live the British Toilet Association!

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  2. I think that, unless they open the loo blocks in the parks pretty soon, never mind a corona crisis, there’s going to be a cholera one too – especially once the rains start and mounds of human emissions start flowing from under the bushes and behind the trees into the drain-water system.

    Last week’s Economist mentioned that relieving one’s self in public was outlawed as recently as 1990. But, it now being 2020, the local councils (according to the Economist) are enjoying the opportunity to swell their coffers a little by loitering in the parks and catching “public urinators” and “guerilla defecators” in the act and issuing them with fines for “offending public decency”.

    Lara, it may be beyond the scope of your Corona Chronicle blog, but it would be good to hear your view on ‘powder rooms’ and hygiene (?) at other places – such as at the theatres and airports (in case one ever goes to an airport again).

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