Gyms, swimming pools and leisure centres in the UK have appealed for a government rethink after being excluded from the £1bn Omicron business support package.
Huw Edwards, the chief executive of the industry body UKactive, said the government’s decision to leave out sports facilities from grants of up to £6,000 and rebates on sick pay was shameful, and would “lead to businesses that support the health and wellbeing of communities going to the wall”.
“This is a health crisis, so to dismiss calls for support from these essential organisations that improve people’s health is inexcusable and will lead to our nation’s physical activity levels – which are already in a lamentable state – becoming even worse,” he said.
Sports facilities had initially thought they were included in the support package, which the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said applied to the “hospitality and leisure sectors”. However, it emerged overnight that pools, gyms and leisure centres would not be eligible.
Mark Sesnan, the chief executive of Better, which runs more than 200 leisure centres, largely for local authorities, said the company had spent nine months rebuilding its business to 80% of pre-pandemic attendance, only to see a 20% to 30% drop in recent weeks as the government advised the public to work from home and limit social contact because of Omicron.
“The shift to working from home has been hard for city centre businesses including cafes, restaurants and gyms. We have the same problem so it is a bit bizarre we are left out of venue support. The government has to accept that if it is going to discourage people from doing things there is a financial consequence and support needs to go equally to all businesses [affected].”
Sesnan said Better was continuing to keep its facilities open in the hope that the fall-off in business was short-term. But he said that without a rise in attendance or government support, it would be forced to cut jobs and reduce opening hours.
The outcry comes after a group of independent gyms wrote to the prime minister, warning the sector was “on a knife-edge fighting for survival” and needed urgent support before its peak period in January and February, when they can book in as much as half of annual earnings.
Several London-based operators, including Frame, which has seven sites, Triyoga, which has five, and 1Rebel, with nine gyms, called for the reintroduction of furlough payments, urgent financial support via grants and a reduction in VAT as the industry heads into the post-festive health kick.
Sandy Macaskill, co-founder of Barry’s UK, which also backed the open letter, said: “It’s like dark comedy that we’re in a national health crisis and the very industry that keeps people fit and healthy is the one that continues to be ignored. I read somewhere that the latest support package is like a dud Christmas cracker. We don’t even get one of those.”
Rebecca Passmore, the UK managing director of PureGym, which is the largest gym chain in the UK, said: “We echo calls on the government to reconsider its latest support measures, which exclude gyms, pools, and leisure centres. Recent government action has impacted gym-goers behaviour, particularly the guidance to work from home, and as a result city centre and boutique gym operators face real financial difficulty.
“Gyms are a critical sector for the health and wellbeing of the nation and the decision to exclude gyms from any financial support in the current environment is therefore disappointing. Unless the government takes action now to help these operators they may well not survive the coming months, which would have a direct impact on the nation’s ability to improve its health.”