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09 Jul 2020

BREAKING: Gyms can reopen on Saturday 25 July
BY Tom Walker

The public will be able to return to gyms for the first time since lockdown began on 20 March

The public will be able to return to gyms for the first time since lockdown began on 20 March
photo: Shutterstock/El Nariz

The UK's fitness industry can finally get back to business on Saturday 25 July, following the government's announcement today (9 July) that gyms and leisure centres can reopen their doors to the public.

Culture minister, Oliver Dowden, made the announcement at the government's 5.00pm press conference.

Dowden said he was "confident that by 25 July, we will be in a position where we can reopen gyms.

"If there is any evidence of an escalation of COVID-19 leading up to this point, we would not hesitate to take action, including local lockdowns," he said.

A raft of other leisure operators have also been given permission to reopen, including outdoor team sport, outdoor pools and waterparks and live outdoor theatre (11 July) and spa and wellness operations (13 July).

The permission for gyms to reopen comes nearly four months after the entire sector was put into lockdown (on 23 March) and follows a long period of intense lobbying by industry body, ukactive and leading operators from across the sector.

Prime minister Boris Johnson and his government had previously come under fire for their decision to keep gyms, leisure centres and other health and fitness facilities closed, while allowing pubs and restaurants to open on 4 July.

The "pubs before gyms" announcement was described as "ludicrous", provoking intense frustration and anger in the sector and was followed by a concerted effort to force the government into a u-turn.

Ukactive chair, Tanni Grey-Thompson and CEO, Huw Edwards, gave a number of TV and radio interviews to argue for the sector, with Edwards also appearing before the DCMS select committee earlier this week.

Lobbying saw ukactive taking a delegation of government and public health officials, including members of SAGE, on visits to a number of gyms and leisure centres on 1 July. Edwards told the DCMS select committee these site visits enabled government representatives to move "from theoretical discussions to operational decisions, once they were able to see how the sector is going to operate."

Gym members also joined the fightback, with a consumer-led government petition calling for gyms to reopen going viral, racking up more than 130,000 signatures, qualifying it to be tabled for a debate in the House of Commons.

Discussions with government representatives have been wide-ranging, with sticking points – thought to include issues around air circulation in gyms – threatening to derail talks at one point, however, an agreement was reached this week, leaving the way clear for today's announcement.

HCM editor, Liz Terry, said: "The fitness industry has shown the most magnificent fighting spirit, unity, creativity and resilience throughout this incredibly difficult time and it will come as a massive relief to everyone involved that we can now get back to work – and back to supporting people to not only keep healthy to avoid the worst of COVID-19, but also to recover from it."

Only yesterday, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, urged people in the UK to lose weight to help fend off a potential second wave of the virus, saying she was 'very, very concerned' about a resurgence of COVID-19 and suggested people take action now to prepare for it.

“To have public health officials making such statements about obesity, when the government has opened pubs before gyms, beggars belief," said Terry, "But at least, thanks to the hard work of the fitness lobby, we have the clear runway we need to fire up the engines of our amazing industry. We know operators will come roaring back with creativity and commitment.

"This crisis has shown us that there is a huge lack of awareness in government about our industry and we must now build far deeper relationships with decision-makers to ensure we never again find ourselves in such a vulnerable position," she said.

Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, said:" Today’s confirmed reopening date means an end to much of the uncertainty for thousands of leisure facilities and their staff in England, as well as millions of customers.

"Having demonstrated to government and public health officials the hygiene and social distancing measures in place, our sector looks forward to showing customers they can return safely and confidently.”

“We also welcome the publication of the government’s guidance, which credits the work of ukactive and its members, who proactively proposed practical, responsible and safe measures for the reopening of facilities.

Edwards believes there is still work to do, however, saying: "The Government has rightly recognised how hard the fitness and leisure sector has been hit by this crisis.

"We are not yet out of the woods yet, as we seek to secure urgent financial and regulatory support from the Government to ensure that reopening is financially viable, both for private and public operators.

“The sector deserves huge credit for taking an innovative and proactive approach throughout lockdown, from helping to keep people active with online workouts to supporting our NHS with resources and donations," he concluded.

Dowden said the government will publish a substantial list of protocols for gym operators to follow and reopening will be reliant on operators adhering to these.

To help with the transition, ukactive – in collaboration with operators – has provided the recommended framework for reopening processes following discussions with Public Health England.

This sets out the details on the use of equipment and facilities and instructions for swimming, outdoor areas and classes.

To access the COVID-19 - A framework for the re-opening of gym, leisure centre and wider fitness industry during social distancing document, click here.

CIMSPA has also launched free COVID-19 training courses for all staff employed in the sector.

As facilities open, all eyes will be on attendance levels, as operators seek to gauge the public's appetite for returning to fitness following the lockdown.

Operators will be faced with challenging conditions, with restrictions on numbers, increased charges for additional cleaning activity and the costs of taking furloughed staff back onto the payroll.

However, the industry is showing great resilience and determination to fight through these difficult times and make a case for fitness being at the heart of the health debate.

Some have predicted that operators are set to witness a boom in memberships once the initial reopening hump is over.

Savanta ComRes, in partnership with Sport England, studied the impact of the pandemic on attitudes and behaviours towards physical activity.

Findings included that 27 per cent of people who are not currently members at a health club said they are also likely to join.

Encouragingly for the fitness sector, 87 per cent of current gym members said they are likely to resume their membership when facilities reopen.

Further research by Leisure-net and 4global is informing operators' approach when it comes to scaling reopening operations, with a likely delay in terms of the return to full strength caused by capacity restrictions and consumer concerns about infection.

A number of larger operators have been raising war chests in anticipation of being able to benefit from the sale of distressed assets, while others are recapitalising to ensure they have the cash to trade through the next stage of the pandemic.

THE SPA AND WELLNESS INDUSTRY

Another industry that will be relieved over today's announcement is the spa and wellness sector – which too has remained closed since 23 March, but can now reopen on 11 July.

The sector, led by UKSA, had organised its own lobbying efforts during the lockdown. Many in the industry were, however, "shocked" at the dismissive tone and "lack of respect" shown by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and some MPs during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions session.

William Wragg, MP for Hazel Grove, had suggested that spas and beauty salons were "much-loved businesses" and suggested the government reviewed the decision to reopen the sector.

Johnson responded by joking about one day visiting a beauty salon with Wragg, which was met with an eruption of laughter from MPs.

HCM's sister title, global spa and wellness journal, Spa Business, reported on these proceedings.





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