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By Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive

We all deserve some hope and joy as we enter this festive period, and last week we had glimpses of both. Hope came in the form of the first vaccine being validated for use in the UK, with the massive logistical operation of national rollout beginning in earnest. Joy was evident in the hundreds of personal stories I saw across social media from people returning to their much-missed gym, pool, or leisure centre.

The second lockdown was hard and impacted many people’s physical and mental wellbeing, and the drop in activities levels since COVID-19 has been sharp and deep. According to analysis from Sport England, the proportion of adults in England engaging in 150 minutes or more of physical activity each week – the level recommended by the Chief Medical Officer – fell during the first lockdown from mid-March to mid-May by 7.1% compared to the same period in 2019. And since the pandemic began, the proportion of adults reporting they had done 30 minutes or more of physical activity across five or more days in the last week has fallen from 33% to 24%. So this joy in returning to facilities was married to a relief that people could once again exercise how they wanted, get back into their routines, and reconnect with an important part of their communities. Many people across all ages and backgrounds told their stories on why this was so important to them, reinforcing once again what millions believe is an essential service.

The implementation of the vaccination programme will be the number one priority for this Government and its health agencies going into 2021, and rightly so. Its success will determine how we roll back the restrictions we live under, hopefully returning a level of normality to our lives. However, what it won’t do is address the underlying health inequalities that run like a fault line through our communities, and which contributed to the tragic level of cases and fatalities we have experienced.

So, I believe there is a unique opportunity for our government to complement the vaccine rollout with a comprehensive public health campaign, collaborating with the physical activity sector, that can begin to address some of the public health issues we face as a nation.

The Government is now in receipt of more than £1.8 billion from the major supermarkets that have returned their business rates relief. That refund could support a major drive to get the nation active again, including creating the physical activity sector’s version of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ campaign – something that greatly benefited the hospitality sector during the summer, and also support wider tax and regulatory support for the facilities which power physical activity in the country.

Furthermore, how can our health agencies work with fitness and leisure facilities in the community roll out of vaccines? Many facilities and their staff could be utilised in this national effort, and this could also provide an opportunity to engage thousands of people visiting these facilities for their jabs on wider advice and pathways to improve their overall health and wellbeing going forward.

The Government can depend on this sector to help improve our national health, both now and beyond this crisis. In fact, its dependency on this sector will no doubt need to be greater in the future as the understandable economic consequences of managing the crisis begin to be reconciled. The Government knows that for every pound it spends on sport and physical activity, it gets almost four pounds in return: savings into the billions on serious physical and mental health conditions, healthcare, social care, diabetes care, dementia care, and preventing an estimated 30 million GP visits a year.  The sector reaches far beyond any narrow definition historically afforded to it, and can support many of the wider issues our government has in its in-tray.

This pandemic has forced a pause in our lives, with many of us reflecting on what matters to us, especially our personal physical and mental wellbeing, and that of our families. The vaccine gives us hope that COVID-19 can be controlled, and we should celebrate that. But alongside this, the Government should set an ambition to make us the most active nation we can be, in order to realise the economic, social, and health benefits that would follow. It would place health at the heart of our national renewal and unite us all around a common goal.

Huw will be giving evidence to the Lords Sport and Recreation Committee from 3.30pm today, Wednesday 9 December. To watch the session and for more details click here.