Covid-19: Restrictions on Gyms and Sport

Monday 23rd November 2020

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there are some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and dispose of them as they leave the room. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can only speak if they are on the call list. This applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list.

I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that Members stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken. This is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that in so doing, they may prevent Members in seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats on the horseshoe.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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23 Nov 2020, midnight

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 333869 and 309851, relating to Covid-19 restrictions on gyms and sport.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. The two petitions we are debating have a combined total of almost 1 million signatures, and they speak to a very deep concern: that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb when it comes to physical and mental health. The first petition, on preventing the closure of gyms, was started by Liam Brannon from north Lincolnshire and has over 614,000 signatures. The second, to exempt golf courses from covid-19 restrictions, was started by Monty Florin from Donnington and has over 257,000 signatures.

During this pandemic, it has become very clear just how much people value sport and exercise. It keeps us fit, helps us maintain good mental health, and is crucial for our resilience to the virus. With sports facilities closed during the first lockdown, many took up running and cycling. Joe Wicks is now a national hero, with an MBE to prove it, leading PE classes from our living rooms. However, it is the ongoing support and inspiration from gyms and other sports that motivates many people and keeps them active.

My inbox has been flooded with correspondence from people keen to see facilities reopen. To share just a few from my constituents, Malcolm, 69, says:

“I try to keep as healthy as I can, especially during the current situation. I go to the gym 3 times a week. Senior citizens like myself should have access to facilities.”

Natalia says:

“Leisure centres, gyms and swimming pools are an essential part of our community and have massively helped with my mental health. It’s a place to go to burn off energy and be in my own head that I just cannot achieve in my home environment.”

The power of petitions has clearly paid off, with the Government announcing today that gyms and outdoor sports will be able to get going again. That news will come as a relief to many, but it is not the end of the challenge. From financial support for struggling fitness venues to tackling health inequalities and ensuring sport is truly open for all, there is still much more to do, and I urge the Government to step up and use this opportunity to build back fitter from the pandemic.

Despite Joe’s best efforts, we know that people have been less active this year. Sport England research shows that more than 3 million people did less exercise during the first lockdown. Shaun, a personal trainer in my constituency, has had a similar experience. He says:

“I have 80 members who exercise regularly at the gym but during lockdown very few of those keep up with exercise. The average weight gain of my members during the first lockdown was 18 pounds.”

As Huw Edwards, chief executive officer of ukactive, has warned,

“the closure of the sector is creating a second public health crisis”.

Many community gyms and sports facilities are now in a very precarious position. The sector usually takes £7.7 billion in membership fees, which have crashed during the pandemic. There are 60,000 self-employed workers whose livelihoods have been destroyed, and many missed out on the self-employment income support scheme, whereas ukactive has warned that without urgent Government support, up to 20% of facilities could close permanently by the end of the year. The earlier support package from Sport England has been welcome, but many providers, particularly charities and social enterprises, have fallen through the cracks. Although the £100 million fund for leisure centres announced last week is positive, there are still big questions around eligibility. Will councils have the freedom to provide help where it is needed most, or will it be a case of devolving that money but with strict criteria attached?

The early months of the year are especially crucial as many fitness businesses make good on all those good new year intentions. Many people sign up to the gym in January, motivated to get fitter. As the Government finalise their plans for the Christmas period, the science says that tougher restrictions might be needed later. It would be a catastrophe for many businesses if we faced a spike after Christmas and the Government then said that they were shutting down again. As Martin, a gym owner, told me,

“if we are closed for January—we will probably have to close our doors permanently.”

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between managing the spread of the virus and the wider public health risks, so I ask the Minister whether the Government will consider the wider consequences of shutting down the sector in any future lockdown.

The concerns of individual sports are wide and varied, and I will do my best to summarise them in the time that I have. Gyms are where many people spend their fitness time. The sector has put in place stringent measures to be covid-secure. As petitioner Liam told me, gym users are following the safety rules to the letter because they do not want their gyms to close. Data from Test and Trace suggests that that is working, with cases from venues relatively low in comparison with those from other settings.

Golf is a comparatively safe sport played in wide-open spaces. Petitioner Monty questions why people are permitted to walk across a golf course as a public right of way, but cannot play a game with members of their own household. As one of my constituents put it, “Why is it safe for me to sleep with my wife, yet I can’t play a game of socially distanced golf with her?” The sport is especially popular with older people, helping them to stay active later in life.

Swimming is one of the most popular physical activities, with 14 million adults going swimming every year, but in many communities swimming pools have not reopened since lockdown. West Denton swimming pool in my constituency is one of those. The not-for-profit operator has warned that it could remain permanently closed. There is a real danger that we will be left with a situation in which facilities in more affluent areas can reopen while those in more disadvantaged areas stay closed, worsening the health inequalities that we know we need to work hard to address.

The tennis sector was pleased to reopen in the summer as a naturally socially distanced sport with a relatively low risk of transmission, but restrictions on sporting activity have hit revenues for community tennis venues, coaches and organisations that help to deliver the sport. Grassroots football clubs have lost significant pitch time this year. The Government must lift the ban as an immediate step. There are concerns that without community support through spectators, clubs will struggle to generate the income that they need to survive. The spectator funding package announced last week is welcome, but the support must reach clubs at every level so that no community is left out.

Gymnastics clubs are a popular place for fitness activity, especially for our young people who have had a particularly difficult time during the covid-19 crisis. Even amateur athletes need to be able to continue their training to maintain their strength and ability. I have also been contacted by the horse-riding sector, which is deeply concerned that horses should not just be left in the stables for weeks on end. There are so many other sports and activities—I am sure we will hear of many from hon. Members today—but it will take much more than just lifting restrictions to make sport accessible for all.

I am particularly concerned about the impact that all this has had on children. We know that children lose up to 74% of their fitness over the summer holidays when they are away from PE, with those from the poorest backgrounds affected the most. Swimming lessons have been cancelled, dance classes postponed, and footballers are unable to get together. With venues and facilities at risk of permanent closure, inequalities could deepen further.

What action do we need from the Government? First, we need clarity on their strategy and the scientific basis for restrictions. The reopening of gyms and sports is welcome and crucial for the physical and mental health of the country, but the sector needs to know that that will continue and that it will not face another round of restrictions after Christmas.

The pandemic has been tough on many sports and businesses, so the second thing that they need is financial support. The extension of furlough has helped, but there is a time bomb of rent going into next year. Some facilities have found that they do not meet the prescriptive criteria to access Government support. We have already seen established providers such as Xercise4Less calling in administrators. Action is needed before more facilities close for good. The Sport and Recreation Alliance is calling for a sport recovery fund to support clubs and facilities across the country.

Other helpful measures would include business rates relief, in line with other sectors, and a cut to VAT to support ticket sales and cashflow, but beyond that direct financial help there is a strong case for promoting exercise and fitness more widely, whether that is inducements to buy home exercise equipment or support for gym memberships. Just as eat out to help out was a boost to the hospitality industry, an equivalent to encourage fitness in the new year would be a boost to not just the fitness economy but the health of this country.

People have faced huge pressures throughout this crisis, and physical exercise is one of the best tools that we have to stay healthy and resilient to deal with them, but without renewed effort to get people fit and active we are storing up bigger public health problems for the future. We also risk reinforcing health inequalities as community leisure centres battle for survival.

After a difficult year, we have the opportunity to build back fitter from this pandemic, to make a collective new year’s resolution to get fit and active, and to support local sports clubs, gyms and fitness facilities to ensure that sport truly is accessible to all. I urge the Government to take the health and mental wellbeing of our country seriously and make this a national priority.

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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Order. I am not going to impose a formal time limit at this stage, but to get everybody in Members should stick to approximately four minutes. I call Chris Green.

Chris Green Portrait Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con)
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1 Jan 2000, midnight

Thank you, Mr Mundell. It is fantastic to follow such a good speech from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). She captured so much of what the debate is about and what people around the country are feeling. There is a sense that we appreciate something only when it has been taken away. That certainly applies to gyms.

Rather perversely, my attendance at the gym went up slightly with the lockdown, because I had to make an appointment to go and then felt that I had to keep that appointment. It helped to a small degree, but I would hardly recommend having this lockdown approach just for that reason.

A great many of my constituents have been in touch on this matter, which shows how much it affects their lives. It is not just about the obvious effects on physical health, but the effects on mental health. When so much else in society has been taken away, this is one of the areas that could and should have been left open, especially because of the very limited evidence that there is transmission within the pub—[Interruption.] Well, in the pub as well, but there is very limited evidence of transmission in the gym environment. We need evidence-based policy, because that is how we give confidence to people to follow the rules and instructions.

We also need to recognise just how much time and effort gym owners and their staff have put into making these environments covid-secure. It is phenomenal. The people working in gyms and the people attending them are so conscientious in what they are doing. The equipment is spaced out and people clean it afterwards. There are certain things that we would like people to carry on doing after this covid phase has washed through entirely.

There is another indicator of the importance of gyms and why they should be left open no matter what future national lockdowns we have. Other people in the Chamber can speak far more clearly and articulately than I about the experience of the Liverpool city region, but the outcry in Liverpool when the decision was taken to close gyms, in contrast with what happened in Greater Manchester and Lancashire, really showed the importance of keeping gyms open. I am glad that gyms reopened in Liverpool.

From the evidence across the board, it is so clear now that gyms and other exercise venues are incredibly important. This is not just about gyms, but other forms of sport, such as team sports. Golf was already highlighted. I will not use the same analogy as the hon. Lady’s constituent, but people could go for a walk and visit every tee on that 18-hole golf course, which is legal, but they cannot knock a ball, no matter how long it takes, from the tee to the green. That is not realistic. It is not seen as a serious consideration when dealing with covid-19. These flaws ought to be resolved. We can understand why the decisions were made in the short term, but they need to be corrected.

With team sports, those who have been doing the sport for a while share that experience with the next generation coming through. If we put a brake on that sharing of experience, it will be difficult to get those teams back up and running, especially if this draws on and on. There is so much more to say, but I am conscious of time. I am not overly keen on the phrase “building back better”, but we all ought to focus on building back fitter.

Peter Kyle Portrait Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab)
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23 Nov 2020, 4:46 p.m.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to have the debate, as well as those people who signed the petition.

Throughout this period in Parliament, it has been difficult as when we get the opportunity to speak—when we are successful in the ballot—we often must speak about the biggest ticket issue. Due to the nature of the virus, the pandemic and the medical emergency we are going through, speeches are often limited to those subjects and we do not get the opportunity to speak about others. This subject is very important, but it has been difficult to speak on it.

I have two concerns. The first is about the lack of Government long-term strategic planning since the beginning, which has impacted people’s health and wellbeing. The second is about the nature of gyms and their importance going forward. That first concern has been an intense frustration to me, as I represent the community of Hove and Portslade, which had the first outbreak of covid-19 in the second week of February. We had the first so-called super-spreader at the time, which dominated the news. I benefited from daily briefings from the deputy chief medical officer and Ministers, because of the focused nature of the situation.

They told me then that their strategy at the very beginning was to delay. They wanted to delay in order to learn from the foreign experience, because things were occurring elsewhere first and fastest. As the pandemic rolled across the continent of Europe, I saw that testing, tracing and contacting people was crucial. The second thing we learned in that period was that a third of people who died in Spain and a quarter of those who died in the first wave in France, before the outbreak here, died in social care. The Government did not put a protective ring around those institutions.

I understand that the challenges were overwhelming. Gyms had to be closed and exercise had to be limited in the first wave, because of the nature of a first-wave response. Over the summer, however, rather than preparing for the next stage, summer was all about, “Show some guts and get out on to the beach. Get down to bars and restaurants.” None of it was about a national debate on what the second wave would look like. In every single pandemic for which we have data the second wave was larger than the first, including the Spanish flu in 1918. It was entirely predictable that we would be in this situation, but we did not prepare for it.

On my second concern about gyms and their nature, health and wellbeing is important. The Prime Minister himself learned that the hard way. Being healthy helps you survive illnesses, including covid-19, yet no preparation went into keeping gyms open during the second wave. There are ways of doing it, because of how modern gyms operate. The gym that I use has electronic entry systems and, since February, it has limited the number of people who can be in the gym at any one time.

I asked the Government over the summer whether they could devolve responsibility for which gyms can stay open and are safe to local authorities. Local public health officials should have been able to make an individual assessment of whether gyms could do social distancing. We could have had additional measures, such as wearing masks inside the gym, allowing fewer people in, and closing changing rooms, where it is quite difficult to socially distance. All those measures could have been put in place; all could have been consulted on way in advance of the need for a second lockdown, but that did not happen, which is why we are in this position—not by accident, but because of bad planning.

James Grundy Portrait James Grundy (Leigh) (Con)
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23 Nov 2020, midnight

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.

I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate. She pointed out that about 1 million people had signed the various petitions we are considering today; I suspect that I am not alone in this Chamber in feeling that all 1 million of them have been emailing me personally.

I very much welcome the announcement today on gyms. Gyms are important not only for mental health but physical health, and as the nights draw in it becomes increasingly difficult to engage in activity and exercise outside safely. Also, as others have already said, gyms have done a great deal to try to make themselves covid-secure, so it is very important that we had the announcement today that they can reopen. That will be welcomed, certainly by the very large number of people who have been emailing us all.

Amateur sports teams, of which there are many in my constituency playing football, rugby and other sports, have been suffering sorely from the restrictions. Constituencies like mine, and I suspect that that includes the hon. Lady’s constituency, are rather poor, so the clubs’ inability to take in funds has an effect on their long-term viability. Leigh Centurions is very much looking forward to reopening. It is not in the dire circumstances that other rugby league clubs have been in, due to both Government help and the sound financial management of the club itself. It would be remiss of me not to mention the club’s attempt to join the Super League this year, which would be a tremendous boost to the physical and mental health of all my constituents, as well as to the economics of the town.

This has been an incredibly difficult year and restrictions on the return of spectators will continue, especially for those in tier 3 areas, but we are getting there. Hopefully, the vaccine will come along in the new year and we will be able to transition back to normal by Easter. I hope that we are able to make that transition as smooth as possible.

Mick Whitley Portrait Mick Whitley (Birkenhead) (Lab)
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23 Nov 2020, 12:03 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate.

I voted for the current lockdown and I do not regret that decision. Indeed, the scientific advice was that it should have been imposed earlier, so my only regret is that Parliament did not support Labour’s proposal for a two-week circuit-break shutdown in October.

One of the sectors hardest hit by the lockdown is the gyms sector—Members can obviously tell that I go to gyms a lot. I have received a considerable number of letters from constituents—both owners and users of gyms—outlining the problems that they have faced.

From the owners, there has been one major complaint. During the full lockdown that began in March, many of them did not receive the financial support that they needed to survive. Notwithstanding the financial support systems put in place by the Treasury as the lockdown unfolded it became clear that many of the Treasury’s conditions and subclauses fell well short of the fulfilling the Chancellor’s original promise of, “Whatever it takes.” As a result, many gym owners were forced out of business. For gym users, the issue was more to do with the fact that exercise is a vital element of both physical and mental health, and the longer gyms remained closed, the more people’s health suffered.

If gyms have to be closed during this second lockdown because they are a major source of infection, then so be it—I am clear about that. But the period between lockdown 1 and lockdown 2 raised my suspicion that the Government have not followed the science. They did not provide any data to show that, during the tier system, gyms were a major source of infection. Even worse, when gyms were forced to close as my constituency was placed in tier 3, gym owners were given less financial support than previously, despite many having spent considerable amounts of money to make their gyms covid-secure. It seems the Government were more concerned about allowing grouse shoots to go ahead than about the amenities vital to the health and wellbeing of my constituents.

That double standard was dramatically exposed when Lancashire went into tier 3. As gyms were closed in my constituency, I expected the same rules to apply. That has been sorted out today by the Prime Minister, but could Lancashire County Council be so different from the Liverpool city region and Birkenhead? No reason was given and gym owners on Merseyside were handed hefty fines for breaking the rules—a classic example in the Dominic Cummings mould. One rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.

I was deeply concerned by that, and with other MPs from the city region I challenged the Government to explain why there were tiers within tiers and to show the science. No business should be breaking the lockdown, but once it is over, we must guarantee that gym owners are given the financial support they need to survive. They and other indoor and outdoor sports, such as tennis and football, should be provided with scientific advice on any possible risks, so that they can take the necessary safety measures in line with covid rules and restrictions.

Jane Hunt Portrait Jane Hunt (Loughborough) (Con)
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23 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the petitioners, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and, of course, the 1,659 people in my constituency who signed the petitions.

I recognise that this unprecedented situation has required us to take unprecedented steps to protect the public, including temporarily curtailing some freedoms. However, physical activity and sport play a critical role in building individual resilience and tackling obesity, in addition to the excellent benefits to mental wellbeing. It is vital that that is recognised.

Loughborough, including its world-renowned university, is synonymous with sporting excellence and is home to a number of national governing bodies. It should therefore come as no surprise that many of my constituents are passionate about health and wellbeing. That is especially true of the large student population. Mr James Greer, the Athletic Union president of Loughborough students’ union, recently explained to me that organised sport is important to the wellbeing of all students, not only those who are world champions in their chosen field.

From correspondence I have received, local residents agree. People from all walks of life want gyms and sporting facilities of all types to be back open as soon as possible, so I was ecstatic to hear the words of our Prime Minister earlier today. Earlier this month, local sporting facilities followed the new rules and closed. That included CrossFit gym, which is in a converted warehouse and has a huge bay door that could remain open for ventilation, in addition to the social distancing already practised. I urge that we look at a risk assessment of individual venues in any future arrangements, rather than implementing a blanket ban on the operation of all sporting facilities.

I have been contacted by Swim England, which set out a compelling case for why it is particularly important for swimming facilities to remain open throughout the outbreak. It has explained that the unique properties of water mean that swimming pools are an ideal place for people who may otherwise struggle to be active on firm ground. Furthermore, swimming pools are chlorinated controlled environments where the risk of transmission can be successfully mitigated. That has been proven by the safe way in which they operated between the first and second lockdowns.

The impact of the strict restrictions on pools is exacerbating the existing problem of permanent pool closures. Before covid-19, Swim England was already forecasting a 40% reduction in the number of swimming pools by the end of the decade. The Government’s announcement of £100 million for public leisure centres is welcome, and I am hopeful that that will alleviate the situation. I am keen for swimming facilities to be available, now and in the future, as a key element in the education of every child and as a much-needed facility for many adults.

I put on record my support for Swim England’s calls for swimming pools to be allowed to remain open throughout any restrictions. I also support starting from the presumption that gyms and other sporting facilities and activities should stay open, unless their particular circumstances mean that it is unsafe.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and the Petitions Committee for securing this important debate.

I am proud to chair the all-party parliamentary group on parkrun and I have seen at first hand the impact that parkrun can have on deprived communities. In a pre-pandemic world, 170,000 people were taking part in this fantastic activity across the UK. On many Saturday mornings at 9 o’clock, I ran for 5 kilometres around our beautiful Parc Bryn Bach in Tredegar in Blaenau Gwent, and 18,000 children took part in junior parkrun on Sundays. I have regularly volunteered on both days. It is a delight to encourage young people to get active.

The joy of parkrun is that it is free to join, accessible to all age and ability groups, and led by the community itself. There is a further incentive at Parc Bryn Bach, where people are given a free piece of toast to have with their tea. As well as being a fun weekend activity, parkrun also has a proven record of addressing health inequalities. Research has shown that parkrun attracts even the hardest-to-reach groups: those who live in deprived areas, those who were previously inactive and those who fit into both those groups. Even better, participation in parkrun is often a catalyst for further physical activity.

Like all sports organisations, parkrun is ready to get back to what it does best—encouraging people to get active and to stay healthy. It is particularly keen to restart events for children and young people. Children may not be the face of the covid-19 pandemic, but they have certainly been among those who have been hardest hit. In areas like mine, keeping children active is a vital part of tackling inequality. Involving children in sports when they are young helps to maintain healthy habits throughout their lives, and prevent issues, such as obesity, before they arise. Parkrun wants to restart events for primary school-aged children from January, because it knows that early intervention works. Getting children running again would be good for their wellbeing and mental health, and good for our communities.

This strange year has reminded us of the importance of our health and wellbeing like no other. Sport needs to be a fundamental part of the covid-19 recovery, not an afterthought. Organisations such as parkrun, and many others, want to restart as soon as it is safe and feasible to do so, but they must be supported.

I am sure there are many keen parkrunners in the Government, as there are across the country. I can see some running colleagues from across the House here today. I ask them to reflect on the important contribution that parkrun makes and to work to support the organisation as it plans return. Getting active again benefits us all. I look forward to my first parkrun back as soon as possible.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
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23 Nov 2020, 12:05 a.m.

It is a pleasure to be here with you in the chair, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing the debate and speaking in the way in which she did at the beginning of it.

Very many of my constituents—well over 4,000—have signed the petition, and hundreds also contacted me separately to ask me to be here today to put forward their concerns. We have had a difficult situation in the Liverpool City Region, because we have had a bit of hokey-cokey: open, closed, open, closed, open again next week. We need more stability for our gym businesses and to at least understand the evidence on which they have been closed so frequently.

Advice from the meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on 21 September was that closing gyms would have a “low to moderate impact” on the spread of covid-19, and that closing gyms could lead to

“potentially increasing health inequalities for…groups that do not engage in outdoor physical activity due to safety concerns.”

We are now entering winter. It is particularly cold in here at the moment, which reminds us that it is about to get a lot colder outside, and perhaps many people who would want to exercise will not feel like doing so in the cold, the wet and the dark and in the ice and the snow. If gyms can be safely opened, we want them to be open all the way through the winter and for as long as possible thereafter while it is safe.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said, the Government have not set out the basis on which they said gyms ought to close. My understanding from the industry is that since gyms reopened on 25 July they have had over 50 million visits, with a virus prevalence rate of 1.38 cases per 100,000, which is not bad compared to some other settings. Given the physical and mental health and wellbeing advantages of having them open, perhaps there is a balance to be struck.

At the end of the lockdown, we may be going back into the tier system and there may be more national lockdowns in the new year—we do not know yet, but that cannot be ruled out at this stage—so will the Minister say whether, if there does have to be another national lockdown, gyms will be expected to close again, or are the Government now satisfied that they are safe places and that it is worth keeping them open for their mental and physical wellbeing and health and fitness advantages? Should we be watching out yet again for gyms to close?

One thing that affects those businesses more than anything else is the uncertainty of being open, then closed, then open again and then closed again. Nobody can plan sensibly in that situation. I hope the Minister will have something to say about that. It is welcome that the Prime Minister announced—when his sound was working—that gyms are to reopen next week. Will the Minister say whether the Government are now satisfied that they are safe, even when there has to be a broader lockdown?

Finally, local councils in deprived areas are often the custodians and operators of gyms and fitness facilities, but they have had only half of the costs of covid reimbursed to them. Even though they have deprived communities with more people at risk of ill health, their financial situation means it is toughest for them to keep their gyms open. Will the Minister say what the Chancellor will do next week to ensure that leisure and sporting facilities can stay open in our most deprived areas?

Simon Jupp Portrait Simon Jupp (East Devon) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this timely debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). We have heard some excellent points about the merits of exercise for our physical and mental wellbeing—I will take a personal note of all of them. The communities I represent in East Devon in the south-west depend on their local gyms and leisure centres regardless of their age. For example, constituents in their 80s have contacted me this month, really disheartened about not seeing friends at weekly aerobic classes or swimming. They are some of the 1,000-plus signatories to the petition from my area.

More than 500 members of the LED leisure centre group, supported by East Devon District Council, have emailed me asking for the physical activity centre to be recognised as essential and able to remain open safely over the winter months. It is important to recognise that we must stay healthy, but it is important that we do so safely in an environment designed to help people reach their goals.

Gyms and leisure centre owners such as Cranford Sports Club in Exmouth are desperately worried that, having received welcome Government funding since March to keep afloat and keep staff on their books, money is drying up. They sometimes feel that their role in our communities is underappreciated. Cranford Sports Club is so much more than just its title: it hosts Help for Heroes, Parkinson’s support groups and disabled rackets sports, as well as junior and teen tennis and badminton. It is also a centre for GP referrals from the two nearby medical practices. Those recovering from serious medical conditions have closely supervised exercise sessions in small groups, which reduces the burden on our NHS. Close proximity to the new Deaf Academy in Exmouth has already meant that children facing profound difficulties are being taught to swim safely in a small pool with their carers. The new Move Forward Gym in Ottery St Mary offers memberships to NHS-referred cancer patients, as well as special programmes for cancer survivors. Great work is being done locally across East Devon.

The Government have announced a £100 million support fund for leisure centres, which will help to cover losses incurred in the pandemic. While we await specific allocations, councils including East Devon District Council should also look to the discretionary grant funding scheme to support local gyms and independent leisure centres.

I know that the members of Cranford Sports Club in Exmouth would welcome the support.

We should welcome the move from national to local restrictions next week. I believe that Devon should be in the lowest tier of restrictions to reflect the hard work and significant sacrifices that we have made to suppress the virus. As the Prime Minister announced, leisure centres and gyms will reopen next week—I may even sign up myself—but councils must explore every opportunity to safely reopen leisure centres to support those that they do not have a hand in running.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on introducing a very timely debate. I will speak about rugby. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (James Grundy) mentioned rugby league, but I will talk about rugby union. Both codes have their birthplace in my constituency.

Rugby union is normally played on Saturdays, and there was a pretty good win by England on Saturday, if you noticed, Mr Mundell, but the busiest day for a rugby club is Sunday. On Sunday mornings, hordes of young people take part in mini rugby, at the youngest levels often chasing the ball like bees around a honeypot. We often think of rugby as being a game of big men running into each other—

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab)
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Big people. Women play too.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey
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Forgive me, but I was going to draw attention to the fact that rugby is a sport for players of all sizes, and we have the mini game, the junior game, veterans, and women’s rugby, which is part of every club. When the principal rugby club in Rugby got into financial difficulty, it was the community game—the youngsters and the women’s game—that kept the club alive. Neil Back’s book “The Death of Rugby” draws attention to that.

Rugby is one of the most social of games, and among its values is loyalty to teammates. We sometimes see a bit of argy-bargy on the pitch, but after the game it is traditional to meet in the clubhouse and have a drink with players from the opposing side. Many players have missed the social side as much as they have missed the action on the pitch. The top tier of the game has resumed. We have a new international tournament and the premiership—all without spectators, although they are who the major clubs rely on for money. Local clubs, of course, rely tremendously on hospitality and bar takings. All levels of the game welcome the package announced by the Minister only last week, which is much appreciated.

I mentioned the different versions of the game. The one that I did not mention is golden oldies—the version played by the parliamentary rugby team. That game enables old people to continue playing. There is less contact, and with less contact we have a safer game. Many of the players in the parliamentary team are old players who know what to do but are not fit enough to do it. That is where gyms are important, because we go to the gym to make certain that we are able to do what we know we should be doing.

I have had a huge number of representations from members of gyms in my constituency. The biggest site, and the one I have had the most contact from, is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Centre, which is owned by Rugby Borough Council, the local authority—I think another Member raised that issue. It is operated by Greenwich Leisure Ltd under the “Better” brand. That is where I have my membership.

Like many, I missed the gym during the first lockdown, and I have seen the substantial measures that the club has put in place to ensure that it is safe. There are booked timeslots, there are no showers or changing rooms available, the machines are set apart and sanitiser is readily available, with a trigger spray immediately adjacent to most machines. I see everybody honouring the etiquette of wiping down before and after use. Many constituents have told me how important going to the gym is to their mental, as well as physical, health. We welcome the measures that have been announced today, which will enable us to return on 3 December.

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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Thank you, Mr Pawsey. I am glad that you did not define “old” in that speech.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con)
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23 Nov 2020, 5:15 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate. We are hearing today that we will exit a national lockdown and move to a tiered approach. I am anxious how that will be prescribed. As a member of the Covid Recovery Group, I am pleased that some of our concerns seem to have been met: looking at the 10 pm curfew, opening up outdoor sports, opening up covid-safe gyms, and opening up covid-safe retail.

Covid-19 is a deadly disease—many in this room will have lost family and friends to it—but, just as we want to limit the spread of the infection, we need a long-term strategy for living with the virus that goes beyond Christmas. Our sports and gyms sector needs that certainty.

I will raise four cases with the Minister. First, on gyms, Daniel Sanger, who lives in Uckfield, wrote to me asking how we can justify that a takeaway such as McDonalds, which serves fast food, can be open, whereas he has had to close his business. Of course, he is grateful for the furlough scheme, but people have been limiting their subscriptions and a business like his may have to face further financial damage and lay off people in the future. Of course, the Minister knows that Wealden is stunning, and we have lots of golf courses. Mr Robert Hessey wants to know how he can walk down the street with one of his golfing friends but cannot play golf with them at one of our stunning golf sites in Wealden. Hopefully the Minister can explain that away.

We have a couple of local football clubs, which I want to talk about. They are low-key, local football clubs doing great work for our community. Uckfield, Crowborough and Hailsham football clubs have been put under extreme hardship with the uncertainty of lockdown. Perhaps the Minister will explain how the £550 million that was going to go to local football clubs and associations will be spent in an area such as mine.

I want to move on to the bigger picture. I hope the Minister will answer these questions, which I will try to put in the most constructive way possible. It is not rare that when large organisations face huge risk, the managers, our Ministers, tend to go native—that is, they start to become deal-makers rather than deal-questioners. Deal-makers ask what should and should not stay open, but deal-questioners ask what the real scientific evidence is behind the decisions we are taking.

Given that, I would like the Minister to address three key things. Will he work with us Back Benchers on the evidence that shows us the real impact on people’s livelihoods of every restriction that is put in place? Will he work with the Government to show us the full cost-benefit analysis of every proposed restriction? Those affect not only people’s livelihoods, but their mental and physical health. The lockdowns have been particularly harsh in East Sussex and for my Wealden constituents: we have had a very low infection rate and few beds have been taken up, but people’s livelihoods have been lost.

Finally, I ask the Minister to work with the Government to publish the models that inform the policies that they are taking forward. We, as Back Benchers, should be able to review the data that is made available to Ministers and the Government, so that we can make the best judgment on behalf of our constituents.

The cure of endless lockdowns, which we are prescribing, runs the real risk of being worse than the disease itself. It is time to start removing these restrictions. It is fantastic news that our vaccine is coming down the line. We need to ensure that people can live their lives to the fullest. Every restriction needs evidence. Surely that is the basis of good democracy.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
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23 Nov 2020, 5:19 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and a delight to be in another debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). Perhaps like you, Mr Mundell, being a rugby fan and a Scotland supporter, I did not have such a great weekend. However, we must go forward. We live in hope with the navy jersey and the white thistle every week. One never knows one’s luck.

Like the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), I have two golf courses in my constituency and many upset constituents who are unable to keep taking their constitutional. That also refers specifically the indoor piece: gyms, leisure centres, indoor tennis and cricket centres, and, of course, swimming pools. In these brief remarks, I will focus on swimming.

The hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) has outlined the lifelong benefits of swimming, but as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on swimming, may I thank the Minister for twice attending the APPG and listening carefully, and crucially, for ensuring that school swimming continued during this second lockdown? It is so important that we do not lose a cohort of children, some of whom would carry a lack of swimming ability through their secondary school years and beyond, and perhaps end up in Spain or somewhere during a gap year and tragically lose their lives because they had never learned to swim.

I am really pleased that, in theory, swimming lessons have continued, although that depends on people’s access to a swimming pool. We know that the statistics on swimming pool sufficiency have dropped over the past decade, owing to austerity and to developers not building enough pools under their section 106 and community infrastructure levy agreements. I hope that when the Minister gets a chance, he and his officials will look at the issue of swimming pool sufficiency, because there are lots of regions in the UK where children will not have access to this crucial hardware, so that they can actually learn to swim.

I also hope that the Minister will use any time that might be available to be strategic and look at the role of swimming instructors, paying those people properly and having them in proper arrangements, whether through local authorities or the third sector.

The other element of the announcement I am pleased about is the fact that the third sector will be able to apply for funds. Obviously, all our local authorities are really stretched, so given that some money has had to be spent—I would hope—on mitigating the impacts of covid, there has not been enough to cover all the leisure estate in many of our local authority areas.

I am pleased that the provider in my local authority, which is the charity Fusion, will be able to apply to the Minister for funds. In my constituency, I have an active outdoor swimming group, the Park Road Lido User Group, which is vocal about how much it is missing its swimming and keen to get back in the pool. A case study has been carried out by Hesketh Benoit, one of our key swimmers. He swims every morning—he is up at six, then down to the swimming pool—and also runs basketball and other sports for young people during the summer. He is a fantastic example of a lifelong swimmer.

I pay tribute to those workers who look after our swimming pools locally. I am thinking of West Reservoir in Hackney, the ponds on Hampstead heath, and all these outdoor swimming areas, because research has come out recently that suggests outdoor swimming can play a role in preventing dementia—something I recommend that the Minister look at.

I hope that, as the fund is brought forward, the Minister will come back to this House and tell us exactly how it has been spent, and hopefully that our disadvantaged communities will have access to sport in the same way that everybody else does.

Greg Clark Portrait Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con)
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23 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I was sorry to miss the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and congratulate her on having secured the debate.

We had a few delays in the main Chamber, which I think colleagues have mentioned, but I am glad to be here because we have discovered, as has also been referred to, that sport will be coming back. That is a very welcome development, but it still raises the question of why it was cancelled in the first place, because the one thing we know about sports and exercise is that there is scarcely anything better when it comes to a defence against covid, whether practised by older people or children. A comprehensive ban on an activity that helps against covid is a mystery.

That mystery is deepened further when one considers that outdoor sport was—and at this moment, still is—prevented from taking place as well, especially as the incidence of covid transmission out of doors is virtually unknown across the world. Again, the environment in which we can feel most secure and safe from this dangerous and serious disease is the outdoors. The fact that for the last month the activities that have been enjoyed by our constituents up and down the country have been suppressed for, it seems to me, no good reason is something that we need to learn the lessons of, to prevent this situation from happening again.

However, this is not the first time that this has happened. During the summer, I was supported by Members from all parties in the House when I asked why cricket had again been banned in leisure settings involving children and adult teams across the country. Again, it is difficult to imagine a more covid-secure sport.

On the Select Committee that I chair—the Science and Technology Committee—we know that Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance have both commented on the very low incidence and risk of infection from outdoor sport, and that outdoor sport’s impact on the R rate, in so far as it can be modelled, is negligible. However, one of the things that they said that concerned me was that their advice was at a general level—a strategic level—and they did not give specific advice on activities such as sport. That is a concern because, as has been evidenced by the subscription to and participation in this debate, sport is of great importance to all our constituents. I completely respect the expertise of our leading scientists, but we need to have the ability to influence these decisions, and to scrutinise the evidence that is being adduced to cause lockdowns, and we should not just to have to accept this as a fait accompli.

I hope that the Minister, whose commitment to and passion for sport is known to all Members of the House, can take from this debate a resolution that in the future it will be possible to consider the views of Members and to share with them the evidence on which important decisions are based, so that a return to sport will endure and we will not again be subject to these unexpected and, it seems to me, unnecessary restrictions. I hope that his closing remarks might confirm that the lifting of restrictions that we heard about in the main Chamber today—indeed, just a few moments ago—will extend to spectators at amateur clubs and children’s sporting events.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) referred to Crowborough Athletic Football Club. She will know that the much-awaited derby match between Tunbridge Wells Football Club and Crowborough is on Boxing day. I will be there to support my home team

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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I must ask the right hon. Gentleman to conclude his remarks.

Greg Clark Portrait Greg Clark
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23 Nov 2020, 12:04 a.m.

Exciting as the occasion will be—indeed, it will be a red letter day—I suspect that there will be social distancing outdoors. I hope that there will be no other restrictions on our being able to support that event and the many other sports that have been referred to in this debate, including rugby, tennis and golf. Indeed, I hope that many of us will be able to enjoy that event on Boxing day and other sporting events on many weekends ahead.

Angela Eagle Portrait Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)
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23 Nov 2020, 12:04 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to follow the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I will concentrate particularly on gyms, rather than making general comments on sport, although I support all those we have heard.

Also, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who, before she even stood up to speak, had persuaded the Prime Minister to do what she asked him to do in this debate. [Laughter.] Nevertheless, we need to hear a bit more detail from the Minister, given the arbitrary nature of some of what has gone on in the last year, particularly with respect to gyms.

I will mention Nick Whitcombe, who owns and runs Body Tech Fitness in Moreton and who is a constituent of mine, and Thea Holden, who runs EmpoweredFIT. She is also a constituent of mine, although her gym is close to Arrowe Park Hospital, which I believe is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley). We all know how important the battle against obesity is if we are to make covid-19 less of a problem, and how important it is for people to have a chance to become fitter, which is guaranteed if you manage to get yourself embroiled in a gym.

I want to talk about the mental health benefits of being able to work out, which have been alluded to and are very well known everywhere. Both Nick and Thea Holden, my constituents, would attest to that. There is another aspect: going to the gym can help people to deal with health conditions. Thea, who runs her own gym, suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which results in multiple joint dislocations. She was confined to a wheelchair and on medication before discovering that the disease could be managed by going to the gym. She is now drug-free, wheelchair-free and very fit as a result of the work that she did. She helps clients with the same issue and keeps them out of wheelchairs. When I spoke to her the other day, she told me that some of the people that she helped have been going backwards, because the gym has closed and they cannot get the workout that they need.

Thea has clients with mental health problems. One had a history of self-harming, attempted suicide and other mental health conditions. They could not relate to many people, but found that the atmosphere in the gym, the friends they made there, the effort they put in and the support they got there were very good for her mental health. Thea worries that, with her gym closed, people are really missing out and being put in danger.

Nick, who runs Body Tech in Moreton, asks why we cannot make health and fitness an essential service—not like a blue-light service, but in terms of the role that it plays in physical and mental wellbeing—and protect it more. Will the Minister tell us the scientific basis for the decision to close? Will he admit publicly that we now know more about the disease, and that the prevalence of covid was very low over the summer months, making it much safer, with the process that has been put in place, for gyms to remain open? I hope he will say that, even in tier 3-plus, gyms can look forward to remaining open.

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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If the Minister and the shadow Minister confine their remarks to about 10 minutes each, that will allow Catherine McKinnell to respond to the debate. I call Alison McGovern.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab)
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23 Nov 2020, 5:33 p.m.

I will do my best to do that, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for leading the debate. She made a compelling argument, and as my very good hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned, it is good that she has already persuaded the Prime Minister. What more could we ask for? I thank all Members for their excellent contributions. We had a huge number of speeches from Members from all over the country, but I feel that Merseyside has been represented well this afternoon. It is possibly the sporting capital of the nation, so we would expect nothing less. [Interruption.] It is the home of the champions—just saying.

The debate is very important. It comes at a slightly odd moment in the day, after we have heard the Prime Minister announce in the Chamber some of the details of the next phase of our pandemic response, including the important details that we have heard Members discuss. However, we have yet to see how that will affect our daily lives in practice. None of us knows exactly which areas will be in which tiers, so we are still at a loss to understand how the announcement will affect our sporting and physical activity, and our constituents. That feeling is not new. Too often during this crisis, sport and the physical and mental wellbeing that comes from it has felt like an afterthought. That is not good enough. Every Member who has spoken today has said that it is a fundamental part of life for many of us in this country, so we need better. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North and others have said, we need clarity from the Government on what is going to happen, not just at the end of this month and into December, but in the months to come.

I have questions for the Minister that I hope will help us to get clarity. First, while the return of sports and gyms is welcome, we know we are not out of the woods yet. What will happen to sport if further lockdowns are required in January? Will sport be cancelled again? Will team sports be cancelled? Will gyms be affected again?

As the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) asked, what is going on with spectators? We have seen the Secretary of State’s tweets saying that spectators will be back, but why have those limits to the number of spectators been chosen? I will not ask any further questions about this now, because we have not got time for all the questions that there will be in the coming days about the return of spectators to sport. The issue is very important to people, so I know we will return to it, potentially on Wednesday, when we will be talking about football.

Secondly, we need to consider the possibility of a third wave. We hope it will not happen. We all hope that the vaccines that are being worked on, and the mass-testing, which Merseyside has been trialling, are going to work, but if there is a third wave and we face a future lockdown, what will happen? A number of leisure centres up and down the country—they were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle)—have been shut since March. Many of them serve some of the most deprived communities in our country. Several have been mentioned in the House by hon. Members. Will the Minister commit to getting in touch with each of those Members, and to shifting heaven and earth to get those leisure centres open? I know he has allocated £100 million, but there is a difference between paying the money out and getting the doors open. Will he work with me to get the doors of those leisure centres open?

Thirdly, I mentioned mass-testing. Can the Minister say what conversations he has had with Mayor Steve Rotheram, Mayor Joe Anderson or the director of public health for Liverpool, Matt Ashton, to work out how we can apply the lessons coming out of mass-testing to sporting participation? That has to be part of the answer. Will he have those conversations with people in Liverpool?

Fourthly, sports have made huge changes to their coaching processes to make themselves covid-safe. Has that work been a waste, or will the Minister encourage sports and others to work with him on plan B? If we go back into lockdown, those covid-safe measures can help us keep sport open.

Fifthly and importantly, as several Members have asked, what conversations has the Minister had with the Schools Minister? As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey said, our kids have lost out massively from this. Will the Minister explain what steps his Department is taking with the Department for Education to make sure that every child has sporting opportunities, if not before Christmas, then in the new year?

While we are talking about our children and the health of the nation, we need to look at the facts about what this virus has done, not just to those who are vulnerable, but to all of us. It has had an impact on the health of every single one of us, so, sixthly, what work has the Minister commenced with the Department of Health and Social Care to understand the physical health of the nation, to assess where sport can help, and to create a proactive plan?

The Conservative manifesto, published last December, included promises about sports facilities and an allocation of money. This is an issue close to my heart, Mr Mundell, so forgive me for banging on about it. Grassroots football is in dire need of better facilities. There were promises made in the Conservative manifesto about that. Can the Minister say where he is up to with that plan? As ever, we are a constructive Opposition, and if there are things that he wants to do to improve our sporting facilities, I, for one, will help him.

I come to my seventh and final question for the Minister. I hope to finish a little under time to give the Minister plenty of time to answer my questions fully. The right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells rightly said that the chief scientific officer and others can give broad advice, but not specific advice on the sporting issues that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is clear that we must go much further if we truly care about the health of the nation.

We need a proper plan. The future of our country, including its economy, happiness and longevity, depends absolutely on the wellbeing of us all. I ask the Minister—he has heard me ask this before; I am sorry to be boring about it—for a cross-Government, comprehensive plan for future wellbeing beyond the virus. Is he prepared to create that, and where is it? The Government have spent far too long running from crisis to crisis. Frankly, when it comes to sport—and everything else—we need much better than that.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Nigel Huddleston)
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23 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for leading this important debate, to the hundreds of thousands of people—nearly 1 million—who have signed the petitions, and to the hon. Members who have spoken so eloquently today, and with whom I have had many conversations over the past few weeks and months.

It is worth noting that since the debate was scheduled, we have entered a four-week period of national measures, which means that almost all businesses, including gyms and leisure centres, have had to close their doors to the public. As all hon. Members present are aware, the national lockdown, with its vital purpose of protecting our NHS and saving lives, will last until 2 December.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced in the main Chamber earlier—in fact, I think he is still on his feet—organised grassroots sport will be allowed to resume from 2 December. There will be some restrictions on higher-risk activities in very high alert level areas, and on indoor adult sports, but this is a good day for sports. Gyms and leisure centres will be allowed to reopen in all tiers. As ever, we expect social distancing and the requirements for heightened hygiene to remain in place. More detail will be available on the announcement in the coming days.

The importance of sport and physical activity for the nation’s physical and mental health has never been more apparent, as many hon. Members have mentioned. Sport can be one of the most powerful defences against the covid-19 pandemic, and we will need raised levels of fitness among the population as we prepare to return to our normal lives, now that an effective vaccination programme looks imminent.

As we have said before, nobody, including me as Sports Minister, wanted to introduce further national restrictions, or restrictions on sport. However, as the Prime Minister said when introducing the second lockdown, with the virus spreading faster than expected, we could not allow our health system to be overwhelmed. We introduced very serious lockdown measures; there was no question of making exceptions. We needed to go into lockdown and allow people out for only a very strict and limited number of reasons, including going out to exercise, albeit not necessarily the exercise that everybody would personally desire.

The national restrictions are designed to get the R rate under control through limiting social contact and reducing transmission. For the measures to have the greatest impact, we all need to sacrifice, for a short period, doing some of the things that we would like to do. As the Prime Minister announced today, it will be for a short period; after 2 December, we can go back to some of those activities.

Unlike in the previous lockdown, sport is still taking place behind closed doors. At schools, which are still open—I have spoken, and speak regularly, to the Schools Minister—PE lessons are able to take place. Exercise can be done with one other person; that recognises that we are in winter, and many people, for safety and other reasons, wish to exercise with another person outside their household.

Sport has been and will continue to be a priority. Even during peak lockdown in March, in this country, unlike in many others, exercise was still an absolute priority and could be taken by everybody. That was not the case everywhere around the world, and it shows how important sport and physical activity are to the UK.

There have been many calls, from many sports representatives and the public, for exemptions to the current restrictions, some of them giving highly plausible reasons why their sport should be exempt. I heard many of those arguments again today, and of course the petitions are good examples. I have heard the arguments for gyms, golf, tennis, swimming, basketball, children’s football, parkrun, cricket, rowing and many other sports. That exemplifies why we have had the problem and the issues that we are facing. As I am sure hon. Members will understand, the difficulty is that when we unpick one thing, the effectiveness of the whole package of restrictions is compromised. When we keep taking individual bricks out, the whole wall falls down. Instead of there being one exemption for one person to conduct their preferred activity, all of sudden there are tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of potential additional interactions—the very thing that we wanted to avoid.

The focus had to be on minimising the number of potentially risky interactions. That is not to say that any individual sport is high risk—quite the contrary. If we thought that, we would never have allowed them to take place. The point, as many have mentioned, is that there is a very small risk of the infection spreading in each of those interactions. We therefore had to take action, and the Prime Minister was very clear that there should be no exemptions, for clarity, and to ensure that everybody understood that this is a deadly serious lockdown.

Unfortunately, that meant that everybody had to make compromises. I know that closing these facilities was incredibly inconvenient, compromised people’s health and was very upsetting and disturbing, but there is no doubt that the restrictions that we have all had to live under for the past few weeks, and for the next week or so, will have saved lives, so that inconvenience, I think, was worth it.

David Mundell Portrait David Mundell (in the Chair)
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Order. Members need to come to the horseshoe in order to speak.

Chris Green Portrait Chris Green
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A number of colleagues have raised concerns about evidence and data. The Minister talks about the risks that interaction poses. There must now be data and evidence, accumulated over the last nine months. A report could be published and shared on the evidence of the impact that opening clubs and gyms would have on covid transmission.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Many people have asked for the data. I think I have articulated that the point is the possibility of there being a risk. As the chief medical officers and others have said, there is always a risk with any social interaction. We saw death rates go from a dozen or so a day in August to dozens a day—in fact, there are now more than 500. That is the evidence. That is why we had to take significant action.

I have always said, though, that as soon as it is possible to start lifting restrictions, grassroots sport will be among the first things to return. That has been confirmed by the Prime Minister today, as promised. I pay tribute to all the hard work carried out by sports’ governing bodies and clubs across the country to ensure that we were ready for the return of sport—from gyms, leisure centres and pools, to rowing and badminton clubs.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle
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Does that imply that if there is a further national lockdown in the new year, gyms will all have to close again?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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The hon. Lady raises an important point, but let us be “glass half full”, rather than “glass half empty” on this issue. We are at the point at which we are reopening sport. She and everybody knows that we have to respond to circumstances; it is ridiculous to ask a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and make promises based on future hypothetical scenarios. We will base decisions on the information at the time, but we are now in a pattern. We have the vaccination coming. I am very confident that we are looking to a much more positive future, and that is what the Government will be focused on.

I pay tribute to the hard work and effort of so many sports bodies and clubs that have made their facilities as safe as possible and minimised the risk. It has involved a huge amount of work for them at not inconsiderable cost to ensure that social distancing, improved hygiene and other measures have been implemented to increase safety and lower the risk to their members and, indeed, their staff. I thank all those who have played their part, many of whom volunteered to go the extra mile for the work that has got us this far.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern
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This is a simple question. The Minister thanks sports groups for their work, and I agree with him. If we have future lockdowns, either the work done to make sports covid-safe is good enough that they will not be included, or they will need to prepare to be included if there is a future lockdown. Which is it?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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What everybody is going through at the moment—the sacrifices everybody is making—is precisely to reduce the chances of a future lockdown. I appreciate the work that everybody is doing.

The return of golf has had a tremendous amount of support from the public, as seen by over 250,000 people signing one of the petitions that led to the debate. Golf has great reach across society for all ages, backgrounds and abilities, bringing people together to experience the great outdoors. Like gyms, leisure centres and pools, the golfing community has made strenuous efforts to ensure that its players can take part safely. Once again, I pay tribute to its shared efforts. I say to the hon. Lady that every piece of effort and energy that has gone into making grounds and sports facilities safe has been well worth it. That is exactly why we have been able to make the progress we have so far. The Government recognised those efforts and the importance of golf by ensuring that golf courses were among the first facilities to reopen following the lockdown in the spring.

Sports and physical facilities are at the heart of our communities and play a crucial role in supporting adults and children to be active. The Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses through tax reliefs, cash grants and employee wage support, which many sports clubs have benefited from. However, many leisure centres have faced acute challenges during the pandemic, which is why on 27 October the Government announced a £100 million support fund for leisure centres affected by the pandemic, which many hon. Members have mentioned today. My Department is currently working closely with Sport England and MHCLG on the design of that scheme. Further details will be released shortly. Once the funds are open, I urge local authorities to bid for the money. I hope that people will make the most of these precious local facilities once they are open again.

That funding is all on top of what DCMS’s arm’s length body Sport England has already provided, which has comprised over £220 million directly to support the sport and physical activity sector, with £35 million set aside as a community emergency fund for our very important sports clubs and exercise centres through the pandemic. We continue to work with organisations to understand what they need and how we may be able to support them into the future when restrictions are lifted.

I am in regular dialogue with representatives from sports’ governing bodies, member bodies and providers of leisure facilities and gyms through the DCMS-hosted sports working group, which provides a forum for representatives from the sports sector to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the sector and allows members to put questions and suggestions directly to me and the Department. I am grateful to all those involved for their continued advice and support.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions and interest in helping to get sport and physical activity up and running again. I look forward to further increasing our efforts, particularly with the increasingly good news about vaccines. People from all backgrounds and of all levels of ability should have the opportunity to play sports and keep active, and that is a commitment of this Government.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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23 Nov 2020, 4:37 p.m.

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for what has been an excellent debate, putting the arguments on behalf of all the petitioners who live in our constituencies and many who are not represented in the Chamber because there are not enough spaces for all Members to come and speak. Members of the public have been emailing their MPs in huge numbers, which is a powerful way of conveying the strength of feeling on this issue.

My personal inbox is now pinging with emails from local sports clubs—those for my children’s swimming lessons and my daughter’s gymnastics—that are getting in touch to say how delighted they are that they will be able to reopen. That is why it is hugely concerning that we are not really getting any certainty from the Government that that could be long lasting in any way. I absolutely appreciate—we all appreciate—that we cannot predict the virus or how things will go, but we have learned some things over the last nine months. I would have thought that one of the lessons that we have learned it that it is absolutely fundamental that people stay fit, active and healthy. That is not a nice-to-have or a leisure activity, but a fundamental part of people’s health, mental wellbeing and ability to stay resilient and resistant to the virus.

I had hoped that the Minister would be much clearer that any of the relaxations announced today will not mean that the very sports that are delighted about finally being able to reopen may have to close down again in January. That is just unthinkable, to be perfectly honest. I really hope that the Minister will take that away and that, once the Government have been able to iron out all the detail on the relaxations being announced, they will give greater clarity, certainty and reassurance to those sports clubs that they will not be open just a matter of weeks, until another spike after Christmas. That spike could come as a result of the relaxations, but also because of the inability to track and trace the virus properly through a system that truly works.

My final point, which has been made by colleagues, is about how vital it is that we have resources in place to ensure that every community—not just in those where people can pay—can keep a whole variety of sports, gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools afloat. The Government should commit not only to ensuring that every community that had those facilities before the pandemic still has them afterwards, but to building on those facilities, making them even better, so that we come out of the pandemic knowing not only that sport, health, fitness and mental wellbeing matter in this country, but that we are truly going to build back fitter and even better than before.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 333869 and 309851, relating to Covid-19 restrictions on gyms and sport.

Sitting suspended.