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By Stephen McLoughlin, Senior Public Affairs and Policy Manager, ukactive

It is now one year since the first lockdowns in Wuhan in response to the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. Since then, every aspect of our lives has changed almost beyond recognition, especially so in the physical activity sector.

Our message to the Government has been clear throughout: our fitness and leisure facilities are safe and they are essential. By the end of March, these facilities will have been forced to close for a cumulative eight months out of the past 12. This is despite the essential value of physical activity, the comparative safety of the sector, and the crucial role that exercise has in increasing resilience from COVID-19.

The sector’s impact on inactive groups, and the knock-on effect, is why it has such importance now more than ever. With a social and economic value of £85.5 billion per year in England alone, and an ROI of almost £4 for every £1 invested, the sector should be at the heart of the nation’s recovery from COVID-19.

Throughout the pandemic, we have been in regular dialogue with departments across government, including the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Cabinet Office. These conversations have focused on providing the very latest evidence from our sector – both in terms of safety data and financial hardship – and the relevant support required for our members, in particular for public and private operators forced to close. We are also ensuring we work across the political spectrum, with high-level engagement with Labour and in devolved administrations to ensure we maintain the focus on our sector.

Working with our sector partners, we have already seen the impact this unified effort can have on the Government, most obviously in the decision to make fitness and leisure facilities exempt from Tier 3 in the previous model of restrictions in England.

But while the Government has provided welcome business support throughout the pandemic, it has only offered limited bespoke support for the sector, which came the form of the £100m public leisure fund following our submissions. Now in our third national lockdown, with no income, continued outgoings, and now missing out on our sector’s busiest season, the financial position continues to put huge pressure on operators.

All of this was articulated by ukactive CEO Huw Edwards in his appearance before the DCMS Committee earlier this month. This was an invaluable opportunity to share the message from the sector about the dire financial situation directly with influential MPs.

The Government must now move urgently to help us to avoid more facilities being forced to close permanently, and the damage that would cause. With modest investment over the next few months, and a sustained commitment to supporting physical activity going forward, the Government can reap the social and economic value of the sector for years to come.

That is why, in our Budget submission submitted last week, we stressed the need for a three-stage strategy to secure the future of the sector: Survival; Recovery; Development. Our asks were:

Survival

  • Extending the business rates holiday beyond March 2021 by one year
  • Changes to rent legislation and arrears

Recovery

  • Providing the physical activity sector the reductions in VAT afforded to hospitality and tourism (5%)
  • Request that the Government confirms the monies pledged as part of the Coronavirus Job Retention Bonus
  • Workout from Work

Development

  • Extension of Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme terms
  • Deferral of Corporation Tax payments

These measures will provide the sector with the immediate financial security it so desperately needs, the ability to catch-up on the past year, and then position the sector at the heart of the nation’s recovery.

To support our lobbying, the ukactive team is also making use of members’ stories and case studies to paint the full picture for the Government, via constituency MPs. Case studies and testimonial from our membership and the communities we serve offers a personalised story of the effect of lockdown on our businesses and lives, which is invaluable in mobilising support in the House of Commons. We have seen increasing numbers of MPs recognise the importance of the sector as we have moved through the pandemic, with interventions on general debates around COVID-19, and particularly around the petition debate on keeping facilities open.

We saw the power of these stories from our movement during the reversal of the decision to close gyms in Liverpool – a combination of mobilising MP support, briefings into local and national Government, and the personal stories from our members. The importance of the sector to our recovery gives an opportunity to influence decisions at the highest level, as we continue to do.

Now, we are calling for the Government to put the sector at the heart of the nation’s recovery. Using our membership and our avenues into government, we will continue, tirelessly, to make the case and ensure our sector’s survival and future.

To find out more and support our work, email: publicaffairs@ukactive.org.uk