Local councils should adopt Spanish-style booking systems on British beaches to better deal with crowds and avoid the chaotic scenes that unfolded last week, MPs have said.
It came as Government scientists suggested that large gatherings on beaches were actually safer than remaining indoors, and may not be “a great danger.”
One said: “They’re all outdoors and if every one of those groups is a family then what’s the worry?”
A major incident was declared in Bournemouth, on the Dorset coast, on Thursday after half a million people abandoned social distancing to flock to the beach.
Roads were gridlocked, drunken fights broke out and more than 40 tonnes of rubbish was strewn across the sand. Three people were stabbed and eight were arrested.
The debacle prompted an extraordinary blame game as Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council came under fire from MPs and local community groups for failing to predict the influx and take preventative action.
Susan Phillips, the local mayor, insisted it was the fault of day trippers travelling from further afield. The council said it did not have any power to take action and blamed central Government, while local MPs warned the council needed to “up its game.”
Dorset Police were “absolutely livid” with the council for failing to prevent the chaos, the Telegraph understands.
And because a major incident was declared, the local hospital was forced to discharge vulnerable patients to make room for an influx of people that never materialised.
Boris Johnson yesterday warned people against “taking liberties” with social distancing rules as he said it could lead to the danger of a “serious spike” in coronavirus infections.
Pressed on whether the Government would close beaches, a Number 10 spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “It is for local authorities to manage numbers.”
However, the Local Government Association said: “Councils and the emergency services cannot be left to manage this issue alone.”
Cllr Ian Hudspeth, chair of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “The Government can help councils by stepping up efforts to educate the public on the specific risks posed by ignoring social distancing in tourist environments.
“Rail companies need to enforce rules around face coverings on public transport and, alongside Highways England, can help control numbers by using signage to give plenty of warning about overcrowding so people can change plans.”
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP for Bournemouth East, said the beach should have been declared full by 11am. He said alcohol sales should be restricted in shops near the beaches and road closures should be put in place to discourage people from overcrowding and dangerous parking.
He told the Telegraph that tannoy systems could have been used to disperse the crowds, who had all gathered in one central spot near the pier, or marshalls deployed to move people along.
He said local authorities should “absolutely” look to adopt measures introduced on the continent, such as pre-booked slots on the sand, dividing the beaches into sections, deploying armies of “beach monitors” and reducing capacity.
“Everybody is familiar with apps, there are many clever and innovative ideas we could use to our advantage,” he said.
“This is the new normal, we should get better at this, if others are doing things successfully, we should learn from best practice.
“We should be looking at what other countries are doing.”
Mr Ellwood called for a national situation centre with the command and control to allocate outside assets if urgent assistance was required.
“If there were a big event in London, police there would call in help from other forces and that is what we need here, strategic thinking would encourage greater participation of the Armed Forces, for example.”
“Wider national assets must be brought in to help.”
Conor Burns, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, said the beach overcrowding was “entirely preventable” and that the council had failed to learn its lessons from the previous Bank Holiday weekend.
He said the packed trains from London Waterloo should have carried information warning tourists that the beaches were full and that there should be tougher penalties for illegal parking.
“In light of the last few days, the eyes of the country are upon us and I think the council needs to up its game,” he said.
David Morley, chairman of the Sandbanks Community Group, also said the council should have done more to prepare for the influx, which he likened to “a war zone”.
“The council had their head in the sand,” he said, “It was inevitable this was going to happen. They have had four weeks to prepare and they did not use that time well.
“They underestimated the scale of the task.”
He said £35 fines for parking illegally were no deterrent and that a “zero tolerance” approach was needed.
“The council said they did a good job yesterday but I think a lot of people at Sandbanks would disagree, it was like a war zone,” he added. “The misery people went through for almost 48 hours was unbelievable, it was lawless.”
Vikki Slade, the Liberal Democrat leader of BCP Council, said: “We were well prepared. All of our toilets were open and all of the parking enforcement team were on duty and we employed security guards on the beach.
“We asked weeks ago for the Government to stop people travelling so far. But we have six million people on furlough and of course they are going to want to come to the beach when the sun is out.”
Experts said they would have to wait for a few more weeks to know if such gatherings had made a difference to coronavirus infections but argued they were unlikely to have a big impact.
Spanish traffic-light system for beachgoers
The scene contrasted with beaches on the Continent, which are well prepared for visitors with a variety of novel measures introduced to ensure social distancing.
In Spain, some beaches have created a traffic-light system that only allows a certain number of visitors onto the sand and many town halls have banned popular paraphernalia such as lilos and footballs.
On the Costa del Sol, an army of council-employed beach monitors will advise visitors of the new rules and call in police if their information is ignored.
Come July, Benidorm will make tourists book their spot on the sand online or at on-site reservation stands.
The “Benidorm Beach Safety” plan will mean just over 33,000 people will be able to enjoy beaches that in peak season normally cater for around 40,000 tourists.
Its Levante and Poniente beaches have been divided into 20 sections with maximum numbers of visitors for each and some reserved for the over-70s, while only children under 10 will be able to stay in a 20-ft wide strip between the shoreline and front-line sunbathers.
In La Coruna, tourists will have to pass through one of 14 arches with sensors to reach the beach, which will in turn enable the city council to inform people in real time how many people are on any of its six beaches via information screens dotted around the area.
Police in Spain have already had to close some Costa beaches and turn people away to ensure social distancing after they became too overcrowded.
Bolonia beach near the Costa de la Luz tourist resort of Tarifa was closed to visitors from 11.15am last Sunday, even though the number of foreign tourists is still only minimal.
Police also closed the access road to picturesque Maro Beach near Nerja on the eastern Costa del Sol after it came close to reaching its new maximum capacity limit.