The Government has been urged to ensure that any future Covid certification for gyms and leisure centres does not discriminate against users or staff ahead of their reopening on Monday after more than three months in lockdown.
What has been called “the engine room” of the nation’s physical and mental health is among those sectors which can resume at Stage Two of the roadmap, with leaders hoping that this will herald a new era in the political importance of the nation’s wellbeing.
The Government has just announced a new Office for Health Promotion and also appointed Sir Keith Mills, the London 2012 Olympics chief, to consider how the public could be incentivised to live healthier lifestyles.
With the United Kingdom recording one of the world’s worst Covid-19 death-rates, a clear wider correlation has been found in those countries with high levels of obesity.
Neil Randall, the chief executive of Anytime Fitness, pointed to the example of Finland and how they had transformed the nation’s health over the past 60 years. “The country had the worst male heart disease rate in the world but fast-forward to the current day and they’re the fittest population in the world,” said Randall. “This change has been achieved by a complete attitude shift around physical activity The Finnish Government positively incentivised better health and physical activity.”
Around 400 leisure facilities have already closed across the UK following various national lockdowns and, with hundreds of public swimming pools struggling to reopen, there has been a further call both for an extension of the VAT discount and a bespoke public leisure fund.
More than 17 million adults achieve the CMO’s recommended 150 minutes of activity each week by regularly using gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools and, with previous data showing a “very low” prevalence of 1.7 cases per 100,000 visits, operators are expecting a high immediate demand.
“The numbers talk for themselves - Monday is a very significant day as we get the start of the engine room of activity in this country up and running,” said Huw Edwards, the chief executive of ukactive.
Talks are already being held with regards to June 21, when the Government hopes to lift restrictions but is examining how some Covid-secure measures can remain in place, such as a form of certification. This could require people who attend certain facilities or events to demonstrate either that they have tested negative for Covid-19, have been vaccinated or recently had the virus.
“We are talking with Government right now on this,” said Edwards. “If there were to be some level of certification in place we need to make sure there is no discrimination of customers and workforce.
“There are unique characteristics in our sector in terms of volume, age profile and workforce. There is clearly a difference between going to Wembley for a one off event or a season ticket holder going to football once a fortnight to going to a gym four or five times a week.”
Edwards also said that there would be “awkward and uncomfortable questions from communities” if the reality on Monday was of significant numbers of public leisure facilities being unable to reopen due to the vast financial costs of the past year. “There is a real opportunity to think creatively about how we get more people active and really integrate a focus on exercise, fitness and wellbeing into the operations of Government,” said Edwards.
What will reopen on Monday?
Gyms, indoor swimming pools and other indoor exercise venues will reopen in the second stage of the easing of lockdown. It will, however, remain against the rules to meet someone who is not in your household for an indoor workout. Indoor exercise classes also cannot resume until a further easing of lockdown measures on May 17. Outdoor sport and and facilities largely all resumed on March 29.
How different will it look?
The sector will return according to the protocols that were established and in place between July and December last year. This included social distancing, limits on numbers of users at any one time, additional sanitisation and encouraging users to arrive gym or pool-ready so as to minimise time spent in changing areas. These mitigations have ensured that no Covid-status certification will be required when they reopen.
“We point to the evidence that we were effectively Covid-secure,” said Huw Edwards, the chief executive of ukactive. “The teams are doing a huge amount to ensure the safety of our workforce and customer base but also the enjoyment and satisfaction of that experience.”
Will all gyms, swimming pools and leisure centres survive?
Around 400 leisure facilities have already been lost and almost a third of public leisure facilities were unable to reopen when restrictions were previously lifted in July. This included around 200 swimming pools. Leaders in the sector are urgently calling for various tax reliefs and incentivisation schemes, such as an extension in the VAT reduction but also a bespoke public leisure fund running into the hundreds of millions of pounds.
“That needs to happen sooner rather than later for public leisure to operate beyond milestone dates,” said Edwards. “We need an extension of the VAT reduction and a public leisure fund to compliment reopening.”
Neil Randall, the chief executive of Anytime Fitness, has this week also called for a Government contribution to gym memberships and ‘investment in wellbeing’ grants so that employers can offer facilities to create a healthier workforce.
Will they be accessible to all users?
There will be limitations on numbers and also some classes due to the various protocols and lockdown rules. Restrictions especially impacted on disabled groups between July and November last year and there has been a fresh call this week to ensure an equality of access when facilities do reopen. Disabled people are more likely to be concerned about leaving their home to be active and have been disproportionately impacted by a national reduction in activity levels.
“This last year has taught us that activity plays a huge role in all our lives,” said Barry Horne, the chief executive of the Activity Alliance. “Disabled people have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, so now is the time to do all we can to make our places and spaces as welcoming as possible. Millions of disabled people must not be forgotten or miss out on the huge physical and mental health benefits of being active.”
When might they fully reopen without restrictions and could that then require a Covid certificate?
The government roadmap is working towards June 21 as a potential wider reopening of all facilities without restrictions. Talks have already begun over whether Covid-status certification would then apply to gyms and leisure centres and how that might look. There will be no such requirement from Monday when Covid-secure protocols are in place. The sector is adamant that its “unique” characteristics should be carefully considered with respect to its volume of customers and the age profile of its customers and workforce.