Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
Thank you, Mr Mundell. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing and opening the debate. I wish to speak particularly on the petitions before us that relate to gyms and fitness. It may be obvious to most that, unlike the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), I am not regularly found in a gym myself, but I know that they are very important to millions of Brits, not least the entrepreneurs who run them and the staff whose jobs depend on them.
All of us have appreciated the need for measures to control this virus and to save lives, not least our local gyms and fitness centres themselves. Across the board, they introduced comprehensive and robust covid-secure measures very early. Last October, I had the pleasure of visiting Intent 2 Improve, a gym in the town of Buckingham in my constituency, where I saw at first hand the measures that have been put in place to secure its members’ safety: hygiene, ventilation and social distancing measures.
However, as we all know, as part of the national lockdown restrictions that gym, and all other gyms and indoor and outdoor leisure facilities across our country, closed. Given their excellent track record on hygiene and safety, and the corresponding extremely low incidence of transmission of the virus in such settings, it was, I fear we must acknowledge, a bitter pill that such severe limitations were placed on opportunities for exercise in a safe environment.
I am sure that I am not alone in this House in saying that the consequences for the physical and mental health of my constituents of those closures has been significant. It has never been more important for the nation to take responsibility for its own health, thereby protecting the NHS. There is a clear correlation between covid complications, hospitalisations, the tragedy of losing life to the virus and obesity-related conditions. Even more concerningly, Office for National Statistics data shows that suicides have increased by some 20% since the first lockdown. It is indeed a tragedy that, alongside the pandemic, there is likely to be a mental health pandemic that, if left unaddressed, will have a long-term impact that is much more far-reaching and difficult to recover from.
It may once have been true that exercise was a leisure activity, but with covid and the mental health crisis this country now faces, gyms and leisure centres have become a lifeline for many people, including many constituents who have written to me to make that point and who have, equally, signed the petitions we debate this evening. The industry is one of the only sectors scientifically proven to be able to support our nation with underlying health conditions, mental health conditions and other physical conditions. It is and must be part of the covid solution. As such, I very much welcome the Government’s decision to prioritise the reopening of gyms on 12 April. However, I have become increasingly concerned that fitness studios are not being classified in the same band as gyms.
That has particularly impacted a small fitness studio in my constituency, The Energy Effect. Dozens of constituents have contacted me about their disappointment that this business will not be able to reopen on 12 April. Exercising together as a group brings immeasurable benefits to everyone—fun, laughter, friendship and health. I saw for myself last year the studio’s approach to mitigating the risk of covid transmission, with enhanced cleaning regimes, restricted numbers, clearly marked and spaced positions in which people do their exercises, and only ever personal equipment being used. Its model kept people as far apart, and as socially distanced and safe, as any other regular gym. In the time it was operating in person, there was not one confirmed case of covid transmission. The owner, Kirsty, has given everything to keep her clients going in these dark times. Day in, day out she has delivered online classes, with 24 a week to choose from. Her business has undoubtedly been a lifesaver for so many of her customers, but an online future is sadly not a sustainable future for that business. I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that it surely cannot be fair that this fitness studio has to stay closed while a gym less than a mile away can reopen.
There has to be an equality of opportunity, and every small business must be given the opportunity to rebuild. The UK’s 7,000 gyms and leisure centres have been open only for very limited periods since the first lockdown. For that reason, I would also support a work out to help out scheme, as called for in one of the other petitions we debate today. A financial incentive would encourage people to renew long-lapsed gym memberships and to support their local gym and fitness centre. It could be via a tax incentive, a VAT cut or holiday, or something similar to the eat out to help out scheme that was so successful last summer. Some sort of grant on a pay per use basis would be good for those businesses as they make every effort to bounce back and good for our nation’s health. The alternative, I fear, would be swathes of gyms and fitness centres closing, thousands of jobs disappearing and more empty spaces in our towns and cities.
In the light of the petitions before us today, I urge the Minister to do all he can to champion further our local gyms and fitness centres and to ensure that there is a level playing field and a fair playing field for all. If we can get this right, it will undoubtedly save lives and livelihoods.