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'Step in the right direction': Gym community awaits reopening on April 12

Gyms and leisure centres have welcomed the latest announcement that fitness facilities can open from April 12, as government proposes a road map to ease lockdown restrictions.  
Peterborough gym and indoor leisure facilities to prepare reopening from April 12 (Photo: Pexels)

"Exercise is the single most simple and important thing that people can do to improve their physical and mental health". These were the words of the Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Witty at a UK Active summit late in November. His words reflect a shift in how centrally the government's most senior policy makers incorporate physical activity provision into the nationals plans for public health. 

The Government now have considered mental and physical health as a focus for how the change in restrictions should look. Therefore, people can meet with one other in an outdoor place, and why later in March, outdoor facilities will be open, with gyms and leisure centres following. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi outlined this ahead of the announcement yesterday. "Outdoor is safer and therefore we prioritise versus indoor. Outdoor sports - tennis, golf, outdoor organised team sports, grassroots football - will go back on March 29." 

These changes reflect the efforts of campaigners and government health and physical activity partners, who supported the government to debate gyms and leisure centres. The government responded by facilitating the debate in July and stating: "the government recognises the importance of physical activity to the nation’s wellbeing and is working with the leisure sector to reopen facilities as soon as possible in a safe and controlled way". 

These changes are welcome news for sport clubs and groups engaging in physical activity. Personal trainers are now able to work in public and private spaces with clients. Groups can train, as a group of 6. This is limited, but it is the right direction for sport clubs and physical activity groups. Still, evidence will be provided to the government which highlights the safety of leisure centres and gyms, and the safety of training groups using public spaces.  

Stuart Haw, PhD Researcher exploring the provision of sport and leisure facilities states: “I have been speaking with local authorities regarding their leisure provisions over the past 12 months. In hundreds of these local authorities, staff have been moved from sport and leisure posts and from information governance posts, to roles focused on dealing with the vaccine rollout and testing.

“The roadmap, and future updates need to be based on evidence and ministers need to consider the risks that not supporting the leisure industry will have. Locals authorities across the country are having to move staff across from leisure to setting up vaccine and testing centres. Some have had spending frozen for sport and leisure. Leisure trusts whether large or small are facing financial challenges and there have been trusts going to administration. In the private sector the situation is also challenging with national providers having limited reserves, but it has not been enough, as DW Fitness they ran into administration and they are just one of many casualties of how the closure of these facilities has impacted the sector.

"For gyms and leisure centres, the transmission rate was 0.34 in 100,000 from July to September, and prior to the second lockdown, the transmission rate in England in these facilities was 2.83 in 100,000. This is much lower than the UK case rate in the general population, as reported by the Government for 5-11 October was 150.83 cases per 100,000 people (cases by date reported by UK Active at 20 October).

"These transmission rates need consideration. Especially given the stresses that people have faced over the past year. Public Health England have found that significant increases in both men and women experiencing feelings of loneliness, mental health challenges, and reductions in life satisfaction. 

“It is imperative that further financial support is offered to local authorities so that sport and leisure provisions can be made. Provisions which reflect the need of physical activity spaces, the importance of physical activity, and the vital role of these services. Facility operators in the private sector need support so that they can resume provisions as smoothly as possible. Likewise, for leisure trusts and community owned gyms. The changing restrictions have been problematic for financial and staffing forecasts at these facilities, so support is necessary.

“If the government do not commit to reopening gyms and leisure facilities as soon as possible, we risk losing a sporting generation, we risk permanent closure of many facilities, a further loss of tens of thousands of jobs, and we risk a physical and mental health crisis.”