Momentum is gathering pace in the push for a U-turn on the government’s decision to open pubs before gyms, with the industry and consumers joining the fight to get gyms open before the middle of July – the current best case scenario.
A consumer-led government petition calling for gyms to reopen has gone viral, racking up over 105,000 signatures at the time of writing, meaning it now qualifies to be tabled for a debate in the House of Commons.
Yesterday, prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced that large swathes of the leisure sector would be permitted to open on 4 July – including pubs – but that gyms and spas would need to remain closed.
Following the uproar that followed, culture minister, Oliver Dowden, tweeted the intention to aim for reopening in mid-July, but the industry is questioning the government’s logic and science and demanding that a proper plan be laid out.
There appears to be a lack of awareness of industry lobbying in government.
For example, in its response to the Parliamentary petition, the DCMS issued a statement which appears to indicate that it is not aware of much of the work done by the sector in preparing for reopening, saying:
“Government is in discussions with the gym sector about the actions that would need to be taken to reopen facilities in a safe way.
“It has asked them to consider what steps they would need to take, and guidance they would need to develop, to allow this to happen. This will be used to support the government’s decision-making around future public health guidelines.
“This is not straightforward. There are many issues to consider, including how gyms could reopen and operate whilst meeting social distancing guidelines, how access in and out of facilities may need to be changed, whether facilities will have enough workers to operate safely and effectively, and whether people will be willing to come back to gyms if they do reopen.
In a letter today to prime minister, Boris Johnson, Tanni Grey-Thompson, chair of ukactive, challenged the government over its handling of the matter in terms that refute this DCMS response and show that the industry had already addressed all these issues long prior to the announcement yesterday.
Grey-Thompson wrote: “ukactive submitted comprehensive health and safety guidance to the Government on 7th May, following a five-week consultation with members.
“This guidance detailed how the sector would respect social distancing measures and enhance already robust hygiene and sanitisation measures.
“The Government welcomed this documentation and ukactive, alongside operator representatives, supported the integration of this guidance into the overarching draft guidance for the whole sport and physical activity sector, which we believed was ready for publication.”
“At no point were any formal concerns raised [by government] about the proposed operating model within our guidance, and no formal questions asked for ukactive or our operators to respond to – an act we would have undertaken enthusiastically.”
ukactive is now calling for the government to:
1. Provide formal reasons for the omission of the sector from yesterday’s announcement, including an explanation on how the relative risk of a busy pub at one-metre social distancing is lower than a controlled gym or leisure centre environment;
2. For ukactive and sector representatives to have direct meetings with the Chief Medical Officer and his team to address any remaining questions on the sector; 3. For Government officials and the Chief Medical Officer’s team to visit ‘show sites’ representing the variety of facilities we have in the sector, and
4. To set out a clear timetable for reopening the sector, with an agreed date.
“Regrettably, many in the sector have lost faith in the process,” wrote Grey-Thompson. “The consequences of further delays and ambiguity are stark. Communities across the UK are now o’n notice’ in regard to the potential loss of facilities in their towns and high streets, with more than 2,800 facilities at risk of closure and more than 100,000 jobs at risk, which is more than half of the workforce in fitness and leisure facilities.
To lose these facilities in the midst of the biggest health crisis could set back public health for a generation. The loss would be catastrophic to communities:
• We will lose swimming pools and children’s swimming lessons.
• We will lose social prescribing services that offer GPs the ability to prescribe physical activity to aid recovery and health in patients undergoing prehab, rehab or managing long-term health conditions.
• We will lose facilities and services for community groups, such as classes for older people, BAME communities, people with disabilities, and schools.
• We will lose over £3.3bn of social value per annum, based on the benefits provided to the population’s health and wellbeing.
In closing, Grey-Thompson wrote: “Prime Minister, this is a personal plea to you. I fear further delays could see us lose these facilities forever. This sector needs to be at the heart of the fight against COVID-19, and I urge you and your team to do everything you can to save the sector.”
Read Tanni’s letter to Boris in full here.