It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the very first time, Mr Mundell. I thank Nick Fletcher for securing this debate at a crucial time for our country, as we look to emerge from this latest lockdown.
As we have heard, the covid pandemic has taken its toll, economically as well as on our nation’s health. Alongside the harm caused by the virus itself, there has been a knock-on impact on people of being confined to their homes for months at a time, unable to exercise in the way they were previously accustomed to. That has led to a rise in obesity and mental health issues, which has placed further strain on our NHS, as well as an increase in the challenging circumstances that millions of people across the country face during the latest lockdown.
There has also been an impact on the leisure and fitness industry, which, like many sectors, has been left in a perilous position after suffering a sharp drop in revenue over the past 12 months. Gyms and fitness clubs should be recognised as wellbeing hubs and given the support they need to survive and to help revive our nation’s flagging physical and mental health.
The demand for this is clear; almost a quarter of a million people signed a petition on the UK Parliament website that calls for gyms to be opened as we come out of lockdown and for a work out to help out scheme to be funded. Such a scheme would see gym memberships, group exercise and personal training subsidised, to give people greater access to health and fitness services. That would give a timely economic boost to the leisure industry, potentially have a positive impact on the NHS in terms of reducing further strain in future, and help lift many gyms and fitness clubs across the country off their knees.
I have met gym, sports and other leisure fitness club owners in my Ilford South consistency, including Louis Lattuca, a franchisee of Anytime Fitness. They were all clear that this could be a huge boost to help them keep their heads well above water in the long term and to protect workers’ jobs when the furlough scheme comes to an end later this year.
This petition closely followed another, which called for gyms to remain open during the tier 4 lockdown, and was signed by a further 180,000 people. It is clear that people are desperate for an outlet to channel their frustration at being confined to their home or workplace, and to improve their physical and mental wellbeing in the process. That is why at ukactive’s national summit last November, Professor Chris Whitty himself stated that exercise and physical activity should play a key role in the UK’s recovery from the pandemic, as well as shape the way our future healthcare plans work going forwards.
Improved physical health not only has a positive impact on mental health, but considerable research, such as from Loughborough University in 2014, also shows that healthier people require fewer days off sick than those who do not keep fit. That can only benefit businesses around the country as we look get the economy moving again.
I know the benefit that exercise can have on the physical and mental wellbeing of an individual from my days in spit-and-sawdust gyms in east London, such as Wag Bennett’s in Forest Gate, where I first started lifting weights and where Arnold Schwarzenegger lived and trained while he was in the UK, and from helping to run a gym in Seven Kings in my east London constituency called Warrens Gym, when I was a young man. Now as a Member of Parliament, I play sport in my capacity as the vice-chair of the Commons and Lords Rugby Union Football Club, and am personally looking forward to getting back into the gyms this summer, and getting my bench press back up 120 kg as soon as I can.
Many sports clubs are at the heart of our communities and have continued to provide a crucial service during the pandemic. For example, Frenford Clubs in my constituency, which does so much for young and disadvantaged people when its doors are open, is now operating as the hub for Redbridge Covid Mutual Aid, which delivers food and vital supplies to some of the most vulnerable people in our borough. However, one of the gyms in my constituency has lost over half its membership over the past 12 months.
In my conversations with not just local gym owners but the chief executives of large leisure chains, I have heard some incredibly sad stories of people even committing suicide because they are so depressed that they cannot get back in and get their health back on track. Despite the Government’s announcing one-off grants worth up to £9,000 per property for the months of January and February, many gyms have not been able to apply because their revenue exceeded £50,000. Two in my constituency missed out by just £1,000 to £2,000, unfortunately. They should be rewarded rather than left without support. The sector is losing £90 million every single week, putting more than 100,000 jobs at risk.
Of further concern is the fact that many fitness businesses do not now expect to make a profit before 2023, with almost 40% of sports facilities surveyed by ukactive at risk of permanent closure. That is why I wrote to the Chancellor last month to request further financial support for the sector, as well as adjustments to business rates. Businesses invested to be covid safe. Although they may not initially have been able to let people through their doors in the same number as prior to the pandemic, having at least a controlled number will be beneficial in the future to a degree.
I echo the calls of many of my constituents in Ilford South to develop a national strategy to encourage people to exercise more and to promote physical and mental health, as called for in the petitions. Exercise will be at the heart of our nation’s recovery from covid, and key to restoring our nation back to fighting fitness.