The UK government is likely to face legal challenges from gym operators following the revelation that new laws drafted to enforce the three-tier COVID-19 alert system will automatically force gyms and leisure centres to close in tier 3 areas.
This directly contradicts the government's own guidance and briefings given earlier this week, when officials – including Prime Minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock – said publicly that any closures in tier 3 areas would be undertaken "in consultation" with the industry.
This contradiction between the initial rhetoric and the eventual regulation has been highlighted to the government by industry body, ukactive, but the issue – which ukactive describes as being disastrous for the sector – has not yet been remedied.
"On Monday 12 October the Prime Minister’s announcement clearly indicated that gyms and fitness centres would remain open under the baseline measures for tier 3," said Huw Edwards, ukactive CEO.
"The industry was told that in tier 3 areas, closure or additional restrictions of gyms and leisure centres would be considered only after, and subject to, consultation.
"However, the regulations issued later on Monday 12 October contradict the Prime Minister’s statement, as well as the statement made by the Secretary of State for Health.
"Legal advice has subsequently been sought on the interpretation of the Regulations, and this has confirmed that they currently stipulate that gyms and leisure centres must close in all tier 3 areas.
"If this ruling is not changed, it will be hugely damaging to the gym and fitness sector the government must move swiftly to rectify the issue.
"We understand this can be done either by amending the current regulations or modifying their effect when any new tier 3 area is added to the list. We call on the government to articulate which of these courses of action it intends to pursue and by when.
"We have today been seeking formal clarification from the government to understand the reasons for this inconsistency, and also reassurance that the regulations will be changed to reflect the statement from the Prime Minister," said Edwards, "but we have received, to date, no such clarifications and reassurances.
"Should this remain the case and if this legislation remains unchanged, then we will seek remedy via all options – legal or otherwise – that are open to the sector."
The threat of legal action follows a similar ultimatum from PureGym CEO Humphrey Cobbold.
Cobbold has said the inclusion of gyms in the tier 3 closures "had no scientific basis" and that the company would "consider any and every course of action that can be taken to support our industry and members, including recourse to legal processes
HCM editor, Liz Terry, said: "This is yet another example of how this government is running the country like Dad's Army – it's a shambles.
"Clearly, getting policy right during a pandemic is a challenge, but there is no logic to closing gyms and leisure centres when they have proven they are some of the safest places people can spend time.
"They also exist to support people's mental and physical health, offering things such as COVID prevention and recovery programmes.
"The industry is trying hard to work in partnership with the government in good faith and just getting messed around. It's clear there will come a point, very soon, where operators have no alternative but to push back and mount a legal challenge. I can see this happening sooner rather than later. Someone has to take charge and fight for a rational outcome."
HCM understands that Greater Manchester and Nottingham may be at risk of following Liverpool into tier 3, while Northern Ireland has legislated to keep gyms open, but only for individual training, with group exercise banned for four weeks.