Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 333869 and 309851, relating to Covid-19 restrictions on gyms and sport.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. The two petitions we are debating have a combined total of almost 1 million signatures, and they speak to a very deep concern: that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb when it comes to physical and mental health. The first petition, on preventing the closure of gyms, was started by Liam Brannon from north Lincolnshire and has over 614,000 signatures. The second, to exempt golf courses from covid-19 restrictions, was started by Monty Florin from Donnington and has over 257,000 signatures.
During this pandemic, it has become very clear just how much people value sport and exercise. It keeps us fit, helps us maintain good mental health, and is crucial for our resilience to the virus. With sports facilities closed during the first lockdown, many took up running and cycling. Joe Wicks is now a national hero, with an MBE to prove it, leading PE classes from our living rooms. However, it is the ongoing support and inspiration from gyms and other sports that motivates many people and keeps them active.
My inbox has been flooded with correspondence from people keen to see facilities reopen. To share just a few from my constituents, Malcolm, 69, says:
“I try to keep as healthy as I can, especially during the current situation. I go to the gym 3 times a week. Senior citizens like myself should have access to facilities.”
“Leisure centres, gyms and swimming pools are an essential part of our community and have massively helped with my mental health. It’s a place to go to burn off energy and be in my own head that I just cannot achieve in my home environment.”
The power of petitions has clearly paid off, with the Government announcing today that gyms and outdoor sports will be able to get going again. That news will come as a relief to many, but it is not the end of the challenge. From financial support for struggling fitness venues to tackling health inequalities and ensuring sport is truly open for all, there is still much more to do, and I urge the Government to step up and use this opportunity to build back fitter from the pandemic.
Despite Joe’s best efforts, we know that people have been less active this year. Sport England research shows that more than 3 million people did less exercise during the first lockdown. Shaun, a personal trainer in my constituency, has had a similar experience. He says:
“I have 80 members who exercise regularly at the gym but during lockdown very few of those keep up with exercise. The average weight gain of my members during the first lockdown was 18 pounds.”
As Huw Edwards, chief executive officer of ukactive, has warned,
“the closure of the sector is creating a second public health crisis”.
Many community gyms and sports facilities are now in a very precarious position. The sector usually takes £7.7 billion in membership fees, which have crashed during the pandemic. There are 60,000 self-employed workers whose livelihoods have been destroyed, and many missed out on the self-employment income support scheme, whereas ukactive has warned that without urgent Government support, up to 20% of facilities could close permanently by the end of the year. The earlier support package from Sport England has been welcome, but many providers, particularly charities and social enterprises, have fallen through the cracks. Although the £100 million fund for leisure centres announced last week is positive, there are still big questions around eligibility. Will councils have the freedom to provide help where it is needed most, or will it be a case of devolving that money but with strict criteria attached?
The early months of the year are especially crucial as many fitness businesses make good on all those good new year intentions. Many people sign up to the gym in January, motivated to get fitter. As the Government finalise their plans for the Christmas period, the science says that tougher restrictions might be needed later. It would be a catastrophe for many businesses if we faced a spike after Christmas and the Government then said that they were shutting down again. As Martin, a gym owner, told me,
“if we are closed for January—we will probably have to close our doors permanently.”
Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between managing the spread of the virus and the wider public health risks, so I ask the Minister whether the Government will consider the wider consequences of shutting down the sector in any future lockdown.
The concerns of individual sports are wide and varied, and I will do my best to summarise them in the time that I have. Gyms are where many people spend their fitness time. The sector has put in place stringent measures to be covid-secure. As petitioner Liam told me, gym users are following the safety rules to the letter because they do not want their gyms to close. Data from Test and Trace suggests that that is working, with cases from venues relatively low in comparison with those from other settings.
Golf is a comparatively safe sport played in wide-open spaces. Petitioner Monty questions why people are permitted to walk across a golf course as a public right of way, but cannot play a game with members of their own household. As one of my constituents put it, “Why is it safe for me to sleep with my wife, yet I can’t play a game of socially distanced golf with her?” The sport is especially popular with older people, helping them to stay active later in life.
Swimming is one of the most popular physical activities, with 14 million adults going swimming every year, but in many communities swimming pools have not reopened since lockdown. West Denton swimming pool in my constituency is one of those. The not-for-profit operator has warned that it could remain permanently closed. There is a real danger that we will be left with a situation in which facilities in more affluent areas can reopen while those in more disadvantaged areas stay closed, worsening the health inequalities that we know we need to work hard to address.
The tennis sector was pleased to reopen in the summer as a naturally socially distanced sport with a relatively low risk of transmission, but restrictions on sporting activity have hit revenues for community tennis venues, coaches and organisations that help to deliver the sport. Grassroots football clubs have lost significant pitch time this year. The Government must lift the ban as an immediate step. There are concerns that without community support through spectators, clubs will struggle to generate the income that they need to survive. The spectator funding package announced last week is welcome, but the support must reach clubs at every level so that no community is left out.
Gymnastics clubs are a popular place for fitness activity, especially for our young people who have had a particularly difficult time during the covid-19 crisis. Even amateur athletes need to be able to continue their training to maintain their strength and ability. I have also been contacted by the horse-riding sector, which is deeply concerned that horses should not just be left in the stables for weeks on end. There are so many other sports and activities—I am sure we will hear of many from hon. Members today—but it will take much more than just lifting restrictions to make sport accessible for all.
I am particularly concerned about the impact that all this has had on children. We know that children lose up to 74% of their fitness over the summer holidays when they are away from PE, with those from the poorest backgrounds affected the most. Swimming lessons have been cancelled, dance classes postponed, and footballers are unable to get together. With venues and facilities at risk of permanent closure, inequalities could deepen further.
What action do we need from the Government? First, we need clarity on their strategy and the scientific basis for restrictions. The reopening of gyms and sports is welcome and crucial for the physical and mental health of the country, but the sector needs to know that that will continue and that it will not face another round of restrictions after Christmas.
The pandemic has been tough on many sports and businesses, so the second thing that they need is financial support. The extension of furlough has helped, but there is a time bomb of rent going into next year. Some facilities have found that they do not meet the prescriptive criteria to access Government support. We have already seen established providers such as Xercise4Less calling in administrators. Action is needed before more facilities close for good. The Sport and Recreation Alliance is calling for a sport recovery fund to support clubs and facilities across the country.
Other helpful measures would include business rates relief, in line with other sectors, and a cut to VAT to support ticket sales and cashflow, but beyond that direct financial help there is a strong case for promoting exercise and fitness more widely, whether that is inducements to buy home exercise equipment or support for gym memberships. Just as eat out to help out was a boost to the hospitality industry, an equivalent to encourage fitness in the new year would be a boost to not just the fitness economy but the health of this country.
People have faced huge pressures throughout this crisis, and physical exercise is one of the best tools that we have to stay healthy and resilient to deal with them, but without renewed effort to get people fit and active we are storing up bigger public health problems for the future. We also risk reinforcing health inequalities as community leisure centres battle for survival.
After a difficult year, we have the opportunity to build back fitter from this pandemic, to make a collective new year’s resolution to get fit and active, and to support local sports clubs, gyms and fitness facilities to ensure that sport truly is accessible to all. I urge the Government to take the health and mental wellbeing of our country seriously and make this a national priority.