Council could recruit officers to help with social distancing as pressure grows on Southend seafront

Southend’s seafront could be patrolled to enforce social distancing rules as fears grow that visitor numbers will reach 300,000 as temperatures soar.

Councillor Martin Terry (Ind), who oversees community safety, said they are looking at bringing in council officers tasked with speaking to visitors, similar to New York’s new ‘social distancing ambassadors’ whose job is to reiterate the importance of being two metres apart.

“We need more staff to look at the pressure points and to advise people, like what we’ve seen in New York where they have more than 2,000 social distancing hosts,” the councillor explained.

“We need to get as much visibility out there as we can to remind people they need to keep their distance. This could be additional staff, it could be using some of our existing officers and it could be volunteers.”

Other changes to be considered by the council later this week include more signage and a re-assessment of how people queue for public toilets.

It comes after the town had its first weekend under weaker lockdown restrictions which allow people to travel to visit the beach.

The seafront stayed fairly quiet on Saturday, but when the weather improved on Sunday, people were soon spotted bunching up in certain areas and failing to use the council’s new ‘contraflow’ system on Western Esplanade.

Mr Terry admitted there had been “teething problems” but is confident the system – which has expanded walking areas and narrowed road lanes – will work once people get used to it.

“The areas that looked empty will fill up,” he continued.

“One challenge with the expanded area is the bike lane runs through the middle of it, so there may be a psychological barrier but I think over time people will get used to it.”

With temperatures forecast to hit as high as 27 degrees this weekend, Mr Terry added his biggest fear is visitor numbers reaching 300,000.

“The Prime Minister has said that unlocking is far harder than introducing a lockdown and that is proving to be the case,” he said.

“If we became totally overwhelmed, we will have to look at more physical controls and that could mean shutting vehicles out of the seafront.”

Cllr Matt Dent (Lab) said there is a “limit” to what the council can do, but suggested implementing a traffic order during the upcoming bank holiday that could see the whole of the seafront pedestrianised so that if there are crowds there will be more space for distancing.

He said: “The majority of people are trying to socially distance at weekends but the problem is number of people. If you dedicate the entire space to pedestrians, you double the amount of space people can socially distance.”

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter