The UK government has been urged to reclassify swimming pools, gyms and leisure centres as essential services vital to public health or face the prospect of thousands of facilities being shut permanently if a second lockdown is introduced.
As the Guardian revealed in June, nearly half of Britain’s public leisure centres and 20% of the country’s swimming pools risk being closed for good before Christmas – putting more than 58,000 jobs in peril – because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though lockdown restrictions have been eased, a third of leisure centres have still not reopened because of their parlous financial state. And with reports the government is planning a new three-tier lockdown system in England – which could mean gyms and pools closing again this winter – UK Active says the government needs to do more to recognise the benefits of the industry on the nation’s health.
“We are calling for the government to recategorise all fitness and leisure facilities as essential services so that they can be fully supported to stay open during this period and play their role in the nation’s fight against Covid-19,” said the UK Active chief executive, Huw Edwards.
“The government and its health agencies must lean on our sector over the coming weeks and months to keep the nation fit and healthy and in particular to support the prime minister’s ambitions to address obesity.
“We note the reports of a new three-tier lockdown system, which includes ‘leisure businesses’, but it is important our sector remains open given the vital role it plays in every community.”
The sports sector has collectively asked for a support fund but there are growing concerns the government will focus only on those sports that have been affected by the ban on fans at elite competition.
Insiders say the Treasury is sitting on proposals for a £500m bailout for leisure centres and grassroots sport but are sceptical about providing the funds.
UK Active, which represents more than 4,000 gyms and leisure centres, said there was little evidence to suggest that reopening of facilities had spread the virus. They said gyms and leisure facilities in England have had more than 22m visits since reopening in July but just 78 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among customers.
Data from more than 1,500 facilities shows the prevalence of the virus within the sector’s facilities, measured from 25 July to 13 September, is small..
“Since reopening, all of the evidence shows that the sector has been successful in following the regulations, with extremely low levels of Covid-19 cases reported from a sample of more than 25m visits,” Edwards said.
The latest Active Lives Survey from Sport England shows that gyms and leisure facilities account for 17.1m adults achieving recommended activity levels of 150 minutes or more per week through fitness activities and swimming, second only to walking, and far ahead of all other sporting activities.