Placing gyms and leisure centres at the front of the queue for reopening would be making a "statement of intent" to building a healthier and better Britain after the pandemic.
This is the view of Humphrey Cobbold, CEO of PureGym, who has made a passionate call for the UK government to allow doors to physical activity facilities to be thrown open as soon as possible.
Speaking today (18 February), Cobbold said that gyms are highly regulated and controlled environments – when compared to some other indoor spaces – meaning they are safer for people to visit. "Even the minutes of SAGE meetings last year indicated that gyms being open would make little measurable difference to the R-rate," he said.
The government is currently finalising its "reopening roadmap", with an announcement concerning the exact details due next week (week beginning 22 February).
"As our leaders meet over the coming days to review the data and discuss the post-pandemic plan we respectfully but firmly request that they place gyms and fitness centres early in the sequence of reopening," Cobbold said.
"Specifically, we ask the Government to heed the wishes of people – millions of normal people across the whole country - who have been denied access to gym and fitness facilities over the last year and grant them that right as soon as safely possible in the reopening period.
"This would be a positive, progressive step and a statement of intent that this Government is committed to building a healthier and better Britain after the pandemic. And it is a step that can be taken based on data from the periods when gyms were open after the first lockdown which demonstrate that gyms do not represent a material risk to the infection rate.
"In this most recent lockdown, PureGym’s current research of 7,000 gym members suggests that over 85 per cent of members cite gym closures as having a negative effect on physical well-being and 98 per cent indicate that gyms are important to their mental well-being. Worryingly, both of these data points suggest the physical and mental health of people is under more pressure now than after the first “summer” lockdown.
"Many people do not have access to safe outdoor space, particularly in winter and home gyms and Peloton bikes are the preserve of the wealthy. At PureGym, we offer access to good quality facilities for an average price of just £20 per month – gyms are now a democratised product for the many, not a privilege for the few.
"And gyms are unique in that their closure is bad for both livelihoods (over 400,000 people are employed within the gym and fitness industry) and the health and wellbeing of the nation. The continued support for gyms to be reopened in the population at large is underscored by the growing number of people who have signed or are signing petitions to that effect. For example this one (click here to view).
"At PureGym we do not for one moment advocate recklessness and we agree entirely with the Government’s cautious approach to re-opening and its commitment to make this the last lockdown that the country has to endure. This request is not at all about rushing to reopen but is about the sequencing and order in which society is reopened.
"The Government has rightly been praised for its vaccine rollout programme, which has proved a game-changer and the benefits of this outstanding effort must not be squandered. We must all wait patiently for the impact of this effort to be felt – agonising though many of us are finding the delay.
"When it comes to reopening, recent media reports have suggested that outdoor venues will be prioritised, but we encourage the Government to take a considered approach in this regard – not all indoor spaces are equal. Gyms are highly regulated and controlled to a greater degree than other indoor spaces and, we believe, are safer as a result. The protocols for COVID-safe operation of gyms and fitness centres were devised through close consultation with Government experts.
"I personally met with the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Van-Tam, and other members of SAGE and PHE to agree these. They cover all aspects including social distancing (100 square feet per person!), ventilation (rapid air extraction and replacement), strictly controlled limits on numbers of people in gyms, and dramatically strengthened cleaning and hygiene requirements.
"These protocols were rigorously applied at PureGym and across the sector and survived the entirely appropriate scrutiny of literally hundreds of Environmental Health Officers who regularly visited our sites across the country when we were open last year.
"The merits of this highly controlled approach were clear to see in the form of very low incidence rates of infection of COVID-19 when we were open last year. These data were collected and published regularly by our industry body – ukative – and were updated most recently this week. And it was clear from the government’s own data for settings of infection that gyms were relatively safe places to work and work out. "Even the minutes of SAGE meetings last year indicated that gyms being open would make little measurable difference to the R-rate.
"This has been a huge health crisis for our nation and we acknowledge the challenges it continues to present to everyone and not least of all those in government faced with making painfully difficult decisions and trade-offs.
"However, we call on the government in its current deliberations to prioritise the opening of gyms and fitness centres, because they so clearly provide a net benefit to the health and wellbeing of millions of people and reduce the burden on the NHS.
"Activity and exercise is quite literally a wonder drug in many ways and in 21st Century Britain, gyms are how many millions choose to “get their fix”.
"We at PureGym stand ready in our 275 sites nationwide – as do hundreds of thousands of colleagues across the industry – to throw open our doors as soon as the government allows us to do so."