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With restaurants and pubs able to reopen from July 4, but swimming pools and gyms forced to remain closed, people are scratching their heads as to why.
When some people aired their frustration over the fact they couldn’t exercise but could head to the pub with mates, Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, took to Twitter to address the decision.
“Many people keen to hit the gym & keeping Britain fit is key in Covid battle,” he tweeted on June 23. “We’ve made lots of progress & I know steps businesses have taken to make their spaces & equipment safe subject to public health, our aspiration is to reopen gyms & leisure facilities in mid-July.”
But his remark didn’t answer the question of why gyms and pools aren’t allowed to reopen, while pubs are – especially when lots of fitness spaces say they have put health and safety measures in place already to make it easy to socially distance while exercising.
The fitness industry has been left reeling by the announcement, as there was a growing assumption that places of exercise would be able to open on July 4.
A PureGym spokesperson said of the move: “We understand that these decisions are not easy, but it is a strange ‘war on obesity’ that sees pubs and restaurants open before gyms.”
As it stands, it is illegal for indoor fitness and dance studios, indoor gyms and sports venues/facilities, swimming pools and water parks to reopen because “they cannot yet be made sufficiently Covid-19 secure”.
Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist based at the University of Sussex, previously told HuffPost UK that gyms “definitely do pose a risk” for coronavirus spreading, as people are in close proximity and sharing equipment. There are also concerns over the virus spreading in changing rooms through people touching shared amenities and through people breathing heavily as they exert themselves. Ventilation is another important consideration.
PureGym’s spokesperson said the chain is “extremely disappointed” that it can’t reopen. “This intense disappointment will be shared by our sector and the ten million gym members across the UK,” they said.
Duncan Bannatyne of Dragon’s Den fame, who runs multiple gyms across the country, claimed he wrote to every MP in constituencies where his gyms are based and invited them to see how they would operate safely. “Do you know how many came?” he tweeted to Dowden. “1. 1 out of 40. No scientist came. No virologist came. And we were happy to operate with 2 metre distance. Why?”
Swim England’s chief executive Jane Nickerson also expressed her “dismay and frustration” at swimming pools remaining closed and has launched an #OpenOurPools campaign calling for the decision to be reconsidered immediately.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, no evidence has emerged to suggest that you can contract the coronavirus in pools, hot tubs, water parks or in large bodies of water like at the beach.
Nickerson said the government has “let down millions who rely on being in the water” – from those who use pools for mental or physical health reasons, to recreational swimmers and competitive club athletes.
“Thousands of workers in the sector and facilities across the country are also still in a state of limbo and this is simply unacceptable,” she said.
“Many will fail to understand how pubs, restaurants, cinemas, museums and hair salons have been given the go ahead to open on the 4 July but not chlorine-filled swimming pools.”
Huw Edwards, CEO of UKActive, said any further delay to reopening the fitness and leisure sector would have “grave” economic consequences, including the potential loss of 2,800 facilities and over 100,000 jobs.
He also pointed out the health repercussions of keeping gyms and pools closed: “Any further delay to our reopening will threaten our nation’s recovery from Covid-19. With obesity the second largest cause of hospitalisation from this virus, gyms and leisure centres are equipped to not only combat Covid-19, but to support rehabilitation for those recovering from the virus.
“Closed facilities cannot support that fight. Closed facilities will also worsen the health inequalities in this nation, especially as one in four members of public leisure facilities is from a BAME background, a community where health disparities from Covid-19 have been felt most.”
When pushed on why gyms and pools aren’t yet opening, a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson echoed much of what Dowden said, telling HuffPost UK: “We are continuing to work with representatives from the gym and leisure centre sectors on plans for a safe, phased reopening with the ambition for this to happen from mid-July, subject to public health guidance.
“We need to make sure that plans are comprehensive with all risks minimised. We are fully committed to making sure the public can exercise and stay healthy, as outlined in our guidance for outdoor exercise.”
But PureGym said it sent “detailed, industry-agreed guidance” to the government on May 7, covering all aspects of hygiene, disinfection, access control, physical separation, number limitations per venue, monitoring and oversight, education and training.
The chain, which has opened gyms in Switzerland and Denmark in the past six weeks, says it is “confident” it can provide a safe place for people to work and a safe place to workout. “In those countries we have welcomed over a million visitors since re-opening, with protocols very similar to those we suggested for the UK."
The gym’s spokesperson pointed out the sector provides “vital support” to the mental and physical well-being of the UK public. “We are bitterly disappointed that the one sector that has the potential to help people and that has developed clearly workable protocols for safe operations is prevented from opening for a further undefined period,” they said.
“We urgently call on the prime minister to re-examine the evidence, engage with us and our industry bodies, and allow people back into gyms as soon as possible.”