Spring 2021 Covid-19 Road Map — [David Mundell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:01 pm on 22nd March 2021.

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Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 7:01 pm, 22nd March 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship virtually, Mr Mundell. I also thank Nick Fletcher, who introduced the debate so well on behalf of all of those who signed the five petitions. It is a tribute to the parliamentary petitions system that triggered the debate that people do participate. They want to sign petitions and draw issues to our attention, and he captured the importance of that well. It is a good thing that we in the House of Commons develop the system so that, even under these extremely challenging and different circumstances, the public can be heard and have their say. As was just said, even if people’s instincts are different, everyone can be heard and everyone can participate, and that is a good thing.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) gave good descriptions of one of the petitions and the frustration that many of us have felt about being unable to be physically active during the lockdowns in the past year. It has been the most frustrating time and we all want that to change. Though many of these measures have been necessary, there is no doubt that they have been deeply frustrating for many people, as Robbie Moore also explained well.

I will take a few moments to talk through the Opposition’s priorities and to acknowledge the frustration that people have felt, whether that is about gyms or going for a round of golf, with their normal lives having been massively interrupted. We all understand that it has been necessary because it is a matter of life and death, but we should not underplay the cost that has been borne. I have a few questions for the Minister as to how we will help the country recover.

No one understands this more than me. The football team that I play with here in the Wirral, the Wirral Valkyries, are regularly counting down the days until we can get back out on the pitch again. All of us know that being physically active in our lives is extraordinarily important.

With regard to the restrictions, the Opposition have set out the approach that we felt the Government ought to take. First, we should follow the science. This has been a challenging period in which all of us have had to get our heads around reading the epidemiology and what that might lead us to need to do. We were slow to act twice in our response to the epidemiology, and that should be a lesson learnt. No doubt when we get to the eventual inquiry, I am sure the science will be pored over, and at what point decisions could have been taken for better impact.

I pay tribute to all gym owners and those operating leisure facilities up and down the country who have been right on top of the need to keep their facilities safe, when they have been able to open. To help them open quickly, they have left no issue unturned when it comes to making sure that gyms and other leisure services are safe—as much as they can be—even in spite of complications with things like the way in which gyms are ventilated. I know that they have all worked really hard.

For that reason, the second priority is that we should all be honest with people. As politicians, we all know that there are hard choices to make. In previous debates in Westminster Hall, we have discussed such issues and where some of the choices lie. Whatever a person’s political feelings, we want everyone in the country to understand that none of this is easy. I do not think that anyone thinks that the choices are simple or straightforward. In order to help people understand why the decisions are being or have been taken, we need a level of transparency.

This is where I want to talk about the future. One thing that we have learnt from the covid crisis is that some of our public health data is not as good as it could be. I do not think that we understand the state of physical and mental wellbeing in the country as well as we might. We have lots of survey information, but understanding the health picture of the country and how people want to help themselves be fitter will help us make a plan for the future, to deal with the consequences of some of the lockdowns, which people have mentioned, such as the knock-on impact on physical and mental health.

Our fourth priority is families. In earlier debates, again, we have spoken about the importance of participation in sport and physical activity, particularly for our children. Over the past year there has been a level of frustration as we have tried to ensure that children have been able to participate in sport as soon as possible. That is an important priority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South spoke of gyms as wellbeing hubs, and this is where we need to move the discussion on. Some of the people who signed the petitions want to see our country have a better state of health and wellbeing. Members have mentioned “lifestyle choices.” I do not know about others, but I would question that language. We are learning more and more about the connection between mental and physical health, and about some of the facilities around us being able to help us have a better level of physical health, which gives us better mental health, as well as having good mental health in a way to support our physical health. We are learning more and more about the interconnection of the two.

In order to improve the health of the nation, we need a national plan as we come out of the lockdown, to address many of the concerns that have been expressed. I therefore want to finish with a few questions for the Minister, to start that conversation. First, what steps are the Government taking, particularly in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to properly understand the underlying state of public health, particularly around the connection between physical and mental health? Obesity strategy after obesity strategy do not seem to have got us very far. How are we really going to understand the underlying issues?

Secondly, in doing that, will we be able to join up our fractured mental health system? Too many people get into a crisis because they do not get the early support to make sure that their mental health is as good as it can be. We previously experimented with physical fitness by prescription, but that seems to have dropped off the agenda. Will the Minister say where he thinks we are headed, in policy terms, on that front?

Thirdly, what steps are the Government taking to boost participation? The Sport England strategy released at the beginning of this year prioritises participation and dealing with some of the issues that lockdown has created, but will the Minister say what the Government want to prioritise now, particularly around social and economic disadvantage, which we know has a significant impact on people’s health? We still find challenges in women’s participation, particularly black women and those from other diverse backgrounds, and also for people with disabilities, who face significant challenges in making sure that they are able to be physically fit and healthy in the way that other people are.

Finally, Members mentioned people’s housing having an impact on their physical fitness. As some petitioners mentioned, that ability to be outside and enjoy open green space is highly important. Whether it involves understanding what the data tells us about public health and the role of physical activity in that, or whether it involves exercise by prescription or some of those planning issues, we need that joined-up plan for public wellbeing. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.