Coronavirus must bring about public health improvements

A doorway in a covered shopping arcade, with a sign over it saying "Eden Walk: lifts to car park, public toilets and shopmobility".
The doorway giving access to Eden Walk’s toilets (up two flights of steps).

One of the things that I have found very noticeable since the beginning of the current Coronavirus outbreak, since well before ‘lockdown’ or even social distancing but back when they were telling us to wash our hands much more often than we are currently used to doing, is how difficult our environment actually makes this. Social distancing and ‘lockdown’ have not replaced the necessity of more frequent hand washing. For years, I’ve refused to eat in restaurants that have no toilet or hand-washing facilities, especially when I would have had to handle the food (fried chicken or anything with bread for example). However, the past few weeks, we have felt the imperative to wash our hands, with soap, even before we put our hands to our faces in case something we have touched may have been contaminated. I don’t normally wash my hands before doing food shopping; I wash them before preparing the food and I don’t worry about, say, having touched the outside of food packaging. But that’s all changing now.

Yet … our built environment still makes it difficult to wash your hands. We are told to take twenty seconds, but finding a toilet in a public place takes much longer. The only wash basins are in out of the way places, usually commercial premises which only allow customers to use them (and some even have code locks so that outsiders cannot simply come in and use them). In shopping centres, they are rarely on the ground floor: in Kingston, the toilets in Eden Walk are on the second floor, up an obscure stairwell that leads to the car park. This location alone would deter many people from even seeking it out. In the Bentalls Centre, they are also on the second floor (where the old food court was) although there are also toilets in Starbucks on the ground floor which I have never been refused access to. There are some toilets in the car park on the way to the Sainsbury’s off Richmond Road, though similarly it is in an ill-observed and poorly-lit location that would also deter use (though they are clean). In Sainsbury’s, they are at the far end of the store (at the front, but a long way from the entrance). Waitrose has none; John Lewis (same company, same building) does, but that part of the building has been closed.

There are so many places where food is served, whether ‘naked’ or packaged, that have no facilities to wash your hands. Many filling stations have coffee machines and hot food stands, for example. Some filling stations have closed their toilets over the years, either to save on maintenance costs or to make more room for the mini-markets owned by supermarkets that take up the service building instead of the usual old few bits of food and motoring accessories you used to find. Until recently, this did not bother me; most of the food I bought was either packaged or was coffee which I didn’t physically touch. Now, I worry that my hands are just near my coffee after handling someone else’s steering wheel. On the way to work yesterday, I stopped at a filling station for a coffee. I took out my hand wash from my bag, rubbed some of it over both my hands then looked round in vain for the toilet. I had to use the water jet for the screen wash (and they’re not made for washing your hands under; you have to squeeze it to get the water out). The station (on the A316 outside Richmond) was massive. I am guessing it will get the “Little Waitrose” treatment in the next year or so.

My point is: toilets have to be more accessible. Hand washing must be readily available. It must be easy to do, so that you would barely think twice about washing your hands before you handle food, especially food that will not be cooked. It must be plentiful, so that there is no great queue. It must be on the ground floor, in a well-observed, well-lit area near the entrance. It must be well-maintained and not stink. This does not just apply to shopping areas; very many areas where people work do not have adequate toilets or washing facilities, especially when many of the workers are visitors (distribution and cargo depots, for example — and some companies have started refusing drivers access to their toilets recently in the name of Coronavirus prevention). It is quite likely that this virus will be a threat to public health for many months even after the current wave and accompanying movement restrictions and social distancing rules pass, and there will be others. We should be able to find somewhere to wash our hands, quickly and easily.

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