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By Huw Edwards, CEO, ukactive

The hopeful news of progress in COVID-19 vaccines allows our government to glimpse a future where it’s able to break the shackles with which this virus has imprisoned us all.

But the vaccines won’t support the underlying problem, which is the state of our public health. As the former Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies wrote last weekend, thousands of COVID-19 deaths could have been avoided if we’d tackled our obesity crisis. The wider health inequalities we face are severe and run as a fault line through the heart of our communities.

The Government’s operational plans for the roll-out of mass vaccinations across the UK must also be matched by a radical plan to improve public health, especially addressing issues of inactivity across all ages and all backgrounds.

COVID-19 has damaged our activity levels, despite the positive messaging from the Government throughout the crisis. Sport England’s recent Active Lives Survey reported an unprecedented fall in activity levels, with the first national lockdown seeing more than three million people less active. While we await the implications of the second national lockdown, we can only anticipate a deeper drop as we enter winter.

The public demand is clear, and the Parliamentary petition to keep gyms open – which will be debated on Monday – is one example of how so many people are making their voices heard. Millions of people of all ages across the UK are desperately missing going to the gym or their local leisure centre, particularly now that winter is here, and are hugely worried how this will impact their physical and mental health.

So, there is an urgent need for the Government to present a plan for our nation’s activity levels in order to avoid a longer crisis – one which puts our collective wellbeing under prolonged threat. I’d urge the Government to commit to three decisions to help turn around the drop in general activity generated by COVID-19.

Firstly, the Government has to keep sport and fitness facilities open as we move towards mass vaccination. This is hugely important in the next few months of winter, and it will provide an invaluable outlet for millions of people, supporting their physical and mental wellbeing. The consistent evidence is that these facilities are COVID-secure, with an extremely low prevalence of the virus. It must also be noted that physical activity plays a vital role in increasing the efficacy of vaccines, and will be crucial to give new vaccines the best possible chance of success.

The Government must avoid the creation of a separate health crisis in mental health, and these facilities are essential to combating this. Furthermore, Professor Greg Whyte recently wrote that 66% of cancer prehabilitation and rehabilitation services take place in fitness and leisure settings. When these facilities are forced to close you’re not just stopping sport and fitness, you’re restricting wider essential services, such as vital cancer support, for many people across the country.

Secondly, the Chancellor should announce in his Spending Review statement next week a bespoke package of support for the physical activity sector to kick-off 2021. This sector has yet to see the comprehensive support offered to others – somewhat surprising in a health crisis – so this should include a combination of business rate relief, VAT exemptions, and incentives that will aid not only sector recovery but also drive more people to back into activity.

The economic recovery of our sector is inextricably linked with the future of our public health, and this package of support should be accompanied by a major push of our public health messaging via the Better Health campaign, and linked to the Prime Minister’s Obesity Strategy.

Thirdly, the Government should create a cross-departmental review that provides an accurate analysis of the role the physical activity sector plays in our overall society, and set clear recommendations for growing its influence further. Many of the issues in the Government’s in-tray can be supported by the sector, from mental health conditions, type 2 diabetes, and loneliness, through to the future of our high streets and crime reduction. For this to happen, improving health and wellbeing must become a fundamental consideration in decision making across government departments.

Successive Governments have failed to unlock fully the potential of physical activity and this Government has an opportunity to do this now.

I believe these three decisions are fundamental for the next chapter in our fight against COVID-19, working alongside the anticipated vaccine roll out. It would be seen as an important reset for how public health is valued, and also how essential the sport and physical activity sector is to millions. This is a real opportunity for this Government to place public health at the heart of this nation’s renewal and they should seize this moment.