Boris Johnson warned opening pubs before gyms and swimming pools could be ‘catastrophic’ for health

Beatrice J. Doty

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, the 11-times Paralympic gold medallist, has personally written to Boris Johnson to tell him that public health risks being set back a generation and that much of the sports sector has “lost faith” in his government following the failure to reopen gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools.

In her letter to the Prime Minister, Grey-Thompson warned that thousands of facilities were at risk of closing permanently and said that there was shock at the decision to reopen pubs, hotels, cinemas and restaurants but not indoor health, fitness and sports facilities.

A public petition urging the government to allow gyms and leisure centres to reopen has also now reached almost 100,000 signatures, the level at which it would be considered for debate in parliament.

“The consequences of further delays and ambiguity are stark,” wrote Grey-Thompson. “Communities across the UK are now on notice at the potential loss of facilities in their towns and high streets, with more than 2,800 facilities at risk of closure and more than 100,000 jobs at risk, which is more than half of the workforce in fitness and leisure facilities. 

“To lose these facilities in the midst of the biggest health crisis could set back public health for a generation. The loss would be catastrophic to communities.”

Grey Thompson, who is also the chair of ukactive, an organisation which represents 7,000 public and private gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools, now wants an explanation as to why opening pubs with one-metre social distancing is safer than a controlled swimming pool or leisure centre.

She has also sought an urgent meeting with chief medical officer Chris Whitty, a clear timetable for reopening and for government officials to visit the ‘show sites’ that have been opened to reassure health officials and users. 

Grey-Thompson also warned that some of the practical consequences of inaction would include:

  • The loss of swimming pools and children’s swimming lessons.
  • The loss of local services that allow GPs to prescribe physical activity to aid recovery and health in patients undergoing prehab, rehab or managing long-term health conditions.
  • Lost facilities and services for community groups, such as classes for older people, BAME communities, people with disabilities, and schools.
  • More than £3.3bn of social value per annum, based on the benefits provided to the population’s health and wellbeing.

Grey-Thompson said that ukactive had submitted comprehensive health and safety guidance to the government on May 7 ahead of a potential reopening on July 4. 

“At no point were any formal concerns raised about the proposed operating model within our guidance, and no formal questions asked for ukactive or our operators to respond to – an act we would have undertaken enthusiastically,” she said.

“Given this sequence of events, the omission of our sector from the reopening plans yesterday has shocked the whole sector. The message from the Secretary of State stating an aspiration to reopen indoor gyms and leisure facilities in mid-July is something I personally welcome, but regrettably many in the sector have lost faith in the process.”

Grey-Thompson ends the letter by saying: “Prime Minister, this is a personal plea to you. I fear further delays could see us lose these facilities forever. This sector needs to be at the heart of the fight against Covid-19, and I urge you and your team to do everything you can to save the sector.”

The government has responded to the petition. It said that it recognises “the importance of physical activity to the nation’s health and wellbeing and is working with the gym and leisure sector to reopen facilities as soon as possible in a safe and controlled way”.

It added that its first priority was to “ensure that Covid-19 is brought under control and that actions it takes do not undermine efforts to protect public health”.

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