[David Mundell in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between each debate.
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We anticipate that there might be a vote in the main Chamber during this debate. If so, I will suspend proceedings for 15 minutes, to allow that vote to take place.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 313310, 557167, 563904, 566718 and 567492, relating to the Government’s Spring 2021 Covid-19 roadmap.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Mundell. I am pleased to lead my first petitions debate on an incredibly important issue: the easing of lockdown in the country. Collectively, the five petitions that we are debating gathered approximately 750,000 signatures, with more than 600 of those from my constituency.
Before I start, I thank the individuals who started the petitions: Paul Marton, James Roberts and Liz Terry. It was a pleasure to speak with both James and Liz last week. They told me of their frustration with gyms being closed in this current lockdown. As I reassured both of them, however, we have since seen a publicised road map out of lockdown in England.
I understand that the petitions have taken some time to be considered, so I apologise to the petitioners and signatories for speaking somewhat retrospectively. That said, it is important to highlight why the petitions were signed and what we should all take into consideration as we move forward and recover from this dreadful pandemic.
Let me speak first of where we are now with regards to the lifting of restrictions. The vaccination programme in the UK continues to make great progress: more than 50% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and hospitalisations are down to their lowest level since September. We all have an enormous sense of gratitude to our NHS and other health workers, who have been on the frontline of this fight for more than a year now.
The speed of the vaccine roll-out must relieve some of the fears of individuals who created and signed the petitions we are debating. Golf courses will reopen on 29 March. Many people will be relieved to know that gyms will reopen on 12 April. Most importantly, however, the Government plan to end all restrictions by 21 June. Equally, the signatories of the petition regarding gymnasiums being open in tier 4 should also be reassured, as the easing of the lockdown does not include a return to the tier system. While developments that we have witnessed since the setting up of the petitions are perhaps unhelpful in this particular debate, they are great news for the many thousands of individuals and businesses to have suffered from economic hardship, unemployment, loneliness and poor physical and mental health over the past 12 months. Despite developments, it is important that these petitioners have their voices heard. When the petitions were first established, these issues were extremely relevant and pressing to affected parties.
Although the lockdown measures were clearly necessary to save lives and prevent our health service from being overwhelmed, we must not ignore the fact that the restrictions were infuriating to many people. The general public are, after all, used to having the freedom to do what they want. It is important that Members of Parliament who voted for the restrictions understand that frustration. I certainly understand it, and over the past 12 months, I have seen many social media posts and emails from constituents expressing quite a lot of anger.
I must inform the Minister that many pointed out that they thought the restrictions were at times illogical, yet I personally understand that the Government had to work quickly in response to the challenges posed by the pandemic. That meant that any restrictions were bound to leave certain people feeling wronged. As with all legislation that has to be rushed through, loopholes and peculiarities inevitably emerged. However, I commend the Government for continuing to listen to the concerns of the public and Parliament. As a Back-Bench MP, I can safely say that my concerns and those of my constituents have been heard and often addressed.
Frustration with the restrictions was acutely felt by golfers, who at times wrote to me to state that it was unfair that they could go for a walk with a friend, yet not have a game of golf on a golf course. To some, such complaints may seem trivial, but for many people, activities such as golf or going to the gym are daily hobbies that give joy and respite from the everyday stresses of life.
I have spoken to many people about the need for gyms to be reopened. I again thank Liz Terry, who began one of the petitions, for taking the time to speak to me. Like many of my constituents, Liz made the very truthful point that, along with underlying conditions and age, one of the biggest causes of covid hospitalisation is having an inactive, unhealthy lifestyle. There is no hiding from that fact. The Prime Minister himself said that his hospitalisation was due somewhat to his lifestyle choices. For that reason, I sympathise with the view of Liz and other gym owners that the Government should support gyms and help this country to build back fitter.
As covid-19 has reminded us of the importance of having a healthy lifestyle, would it not be a good idea for the Government to establish a programme similar to the eat out to help out scheme? There could also be a temporary reduction in VAT to 5% across the physical activity sector. That would massively help the industry, and it would help our NHS by ensuring the population is much healthier.
Let me go back to what the Government were trying to achieve and continue to strive to achieve. We all heard the lines: stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. As I have said, the Government’s whole strategy focused on saving lives. This disease could spread only with human contact, and could spread especially quickly in indoor venues, so if we did not come into contact, it could not spread.
Trying to enforce minimal contact is not simple in a society and an economy as complex as ours. Even in a pandemic, some people have to go to work, such as NHS staff, our 999 services, our supermarket workers and their suppliers, the dustbin men, the postal workers, the bus drivers, the electricians, the plumbers and the social workers—the list goes on. In other words, our essential workers—the ones who keep this country running and churning away—could not stay at home. We needed them, so those of us who were lucky enough to stay at home were rightly told to do so.
Petition 566718 demanded that nurseries be shut. I understand that some members of staff in nurseries may be frightened of covid, but the evidence is clear: children aged five and under are much less likely to pass on the virus, and are not adversely affected by it. Equally, nurseries played a crucial role in enabling our key workers to carry on doing their vital work. Closing the nurseries would have forced many parents to make childcare arrangements or reduce their hours. That, I am afraid, would be wrong and unnecessary, especially as it is clear that nurseries are low-risk environments.
Throughout this pandemic I have had many meetings with the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and Ministers. They have stated that their strategy was to supress the virus until we get a vaccine. While I sympathise that the petitioners will have different opinions on how this strategy went forward, having an opinion without ultimate responsibility is a luxury. The Prime Minister does not have that luxury, but unfortunately has all the responsibility. We must not forget that.
Over 130,000 people have died. That is not just a statistic; these are people’s mums, dads, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Meanwhile, businesses have gone bust. Before being an MP, I ran my own business and I know what it is like for people to put everything they have into a business. I can only sympathise with those who have built up something themselves, only to witness it fail due to circumstances outside their control.
I am pleased that over the weekend the Government announced that they will provide £100 million to 266 local authorities to support the recovery of publicly owned leisure centres and museums. However, as that covers only publicly owned venues, I would like to ask the Minister whether the Government have any plans to help gymnasiums through the reduction of VAT, to say 5%, or through a work out to help out scheme. As ukactive pointed out, such simple measures could stimulate growth in the sector, which was in a position of strength prior to the pandemic, and create a number of sustainable jobs to aid the country’s health and economic recovery from covid-19. Let us help our country not only level up, but physically get up and build back fitter.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the very first time, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (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.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing and opening the debate. I wish to speak particularly on the petitions before us that relate to gyms and fitness. It may be obvious to most that, unlike the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), I am not regularly found in a gym myself, but I know that they are very important to millions of Brits, not least the entrepreneurs who run them and the staff whose jobs depend on them.
All of us have appreciated the need for measures to control this virus and to save lives, not least our local gyms and fitness centres themselves. Across the board, they introduced comprehensive and robust covid-secure measures very early. Last October, I had the pleasure of visiting Intent 2 Improve, a gym in the town of Buckingham in my constituency, where I saw at first hand the measures that have been put in place to secure its members’ safety: hygiene, ventilation and social distancing measures.
However, as we all know, as part of the national lockdown restrictions that gym, and all other gyms and indoor and outdoor leisure facilities across our country, closed. Given their excellent track record on hygiene and safety, and the corresponding extremely low incidence of transmission of the virus in such settings, it was, I fear we must acknowledge, a bitter pill that such severe limitations were placed on opportunities for exercise in a safe environment.
I am sure that I am not alone in this House in saying that the consequences for the physical and mental health of my constituents of those closures has been significant. It has never been more important for the nation to take responsibility for its own health, thereby protecting the NHS. There is a clear correlation between covid complications, hospitalisations, the tragedy of losing life to the virus and obesity-related conditions. Even more concerningly, Office for National Statistics data shows that suicides have increased by some 20% since the first lockdown. It is indeed a tragedy that, alongside the pandemic, there is likely to be a mental health pandemic that, if left unaddressed, will have a long-term impact that is much more far-reaching and difficult to recover from.
It may once have been true that exercise was a leisure activity, but with covid and the mental health crisis this country now faces, gyms and leisure centres have become a lifeline for many people, including many constituents who have written to me to make that point and who have, equally, signed the petitions we debate this evening. The industry is one of the only sectors scientifically proven to be able to support our nation with underlying health conditions, mental health conditions and other physical conditions. It is and must be part of the covid solution. As such, I very much welcome the Government’s decision to prioritise the reopening of gyms on 12 April. However, I have become increasingly concerned that fitness studios are not being classified in the same band as gyms.
That has particularly impacted a small fitness studio in my constituency, The Energy Effect. Dozens of constituents have contacted me about their disappointment that this business will not be able to reopen on 12 April. Exercising together as a group brings immeasurable benefits to everyone—fun, laughter, friendship and health. I saw for myself last year the studio’s approach to mitigating the risk of covid transmission, with enhanced cleaning regimes, restricted numbers, clearly marked and spaced positions in which people do their exercises, and only ever personal equipment being used. Its model kept people as far apart, and as socially distanced and safe, as any other regular gym. In the time it was operating in person, there was not one confirmed case of covid transmission. The owner, Kirsty, has given everything to keep her clients going in these dark times. Day in, day out she has delivered online classes, with 24 a week to choose from. Her business has undoubtedly been a lifesaver for so many of her customers, but an online future is sadly not a sustainable future for that business. I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister that it surely cannot be fair that this fitness studio has to stay closed while a gym less than a mile away can reopen.
There has to be an equality of opportunity, and every small business must be given the opportunity to rebuild. The UK’s 7,000 gyms and leisure centres have been open only for very limited periods since the first lockdown. For that reason, I would also support a work out to help out scheme, as called for in one of the other petitions we debate today. A financial incentive would encourage people to renew long-lapsed gym memberships and to support their local gym and fitness centre. It could be via a tax incentive, a VAT cut or holiday, or something similar to the eat out to help out scheme that was so successful last summer. Some sort of grant on a pay per use basis would be good for those businesses as they make every effort to bounce back and good for our nation’s health. The alternative, I fear, would be swathes of gyms and fitness centres closing, thousands of jobs disappearing and more empty spaces in our towns and cities.
In the light of the petitions before us today, I urge the Minister to do all he can to champion further our local gyms and fitness centres and to ensure that there is a level playing field and a fair playing field for all. If we can get this right, it will undoubtedly save lives and livelihoods.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this important and timely debate. Over 1,000 of my constituents signed the e-petition to open gyms first as we come out of lockdown. Our gyms and leisure centres make it possible for people to exercise in a variety of ways all year round, regardless of the weather. Here in my constituency, we have facilities to meet everyone’s needs, from swimming or spin classes, to treadmills and indoor climbing walls. Like many other parents and carers, I am very much looking forward to when the soft play centres across many of our leisure centres open up again.
These facilities provide the physical space for people to exercise. Most of us here in central London live in small flats shared with many others. We do not have room to jump around or install a smart bike or rowing machine, let alone have the money to afford one. And not everyone feels comfortable or safe exercising outside, especially during the long winter months.
As businesses, our gyms have been hit hard financially. I was contacted by a small independent gym in Clapham that was struggling to get the financial support it needed. It came to me for help in accessing the bounce back loan scheme, having lost income from cancelled memberships and classes. It did manage to get the loan eventually, but that is typical of how many local gyms have struggled this past year.
I was able to visit another small independent gym, F45, in Brixton, in the run-up to Small Business Saturday on 5 December last year. The owner highlighted to me the challenges he was facing with rental payments due to the loss of income from membership fees and cancelled classes. He also highlighted the success in moving some of the more popular classes online to keep in touch with regular members.
Everyone knows that exercise is essential for our mental and physical health. We know that covid is more serious for people who are overweight and unfit. In my constituency, air quality is a big issue, and with covid being a respiratory disease it is even more important that we get people out and about exercising. So I urge the Minister to recognise the important role that these facilities play in helping people to stay fit and healthy, and to look at all additional support to help them as we come out of this lockdown.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this important debate. I would like to use my time to focus on the two petitions that relate to gyms. As I have said before in this place, gyms are incredibly important to people’s health and wellbeing. Therefore, their reopening is vital as we recover from this pandemic.
In July last year, as much of the country was reopening, my constituency was placed under enhanced local restrictions after the first lockdown. That meant that local gyms, such as NRGym and Hi-Energy in Keighley, were unable to reopen at the same time as gyms in the rest of the country. Of course, it was the same for all fitness and dance studios, such as the excellent AW School of Dance run by Andrea Wortley in Keighley and Pure Pilates in Ilkley, which is also an excellent business, run by Kirstin Ferrie. I have visited all those businesses to see how lockdown has impacted them.
Instead of these businesses being able to reopen on 25 July last year, they had to wait until the following September to welcome back their members. That was despite gyms and studios being proven to be some of the safest places to visit. I saw that at first hand when I met Julie Cardus-Anderson, the owner of Hi-Energy, last October. That fitness studio, like many others, had gone to great lengths, and at cost, to make itself covid-secure. Each exercise area had its own sanitation station, specialist fans were installed to improve ventilation, and the maximum capacity had been halved from 20 to 10—all to try to make the environment more covid-secure. Despite that, Hi-Energy and all fitness studios across Keighley, Ilkley, Silsden and the Worth valley faced months of forced closures. That makes Government support for those businesses absolutely crucial.
Initiatives such as the furlough scheme have provided vital support to gyms that have been forced to close over the past year. I am pleased to hear of the Government’s announcement of the restart grants in this month’s Budget, which will provide an extra £18,000 for leisure and gym businesses. That will bring much certainty to those businesses so that all can eventually open safely, but there is never any substitute for being open. I am delighted, therefore, that gyms will be able to start opening in step 2 of the Government’s road map to easing the restrictions. The road map states that gyms will open no later than 12 April, but it is vital to ensure that that happens. I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) about other fitness environments and fitness studios being able to reopen on 12 July. I want all fitness studios, dance studios and gym environments to open on the same day. We cannot overestimate the importance of going to the gym and the impact that that has on our constituents’ mental health and wellbeing.
This pandemic has made us all think differently about the importance of good physical and mental health. The reopening of gyms and dance and fitness studios is crucial in our recovery. I very much look forward to that happening across my constituency and the rest of Britain.
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to speak on this issue, Mr Mundell. I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for setting the scene so well. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and I thank him for his contribution.
The delicate balance of withdrawing from lockdown is never easy to find. The Prime Minister has outlined a very specific road map for England, but in Northern Ireland we are finding it very difficult to provide steps out, and that is beyond frustrating for very many people. We have spent much of the last year under restrictions that do not sit well in a community that treasures freedom, yet we have done so because we were asked to do so.
We have all sacrificed to protect those we love. However, there is no doubt that it has taken a huge toll on relationships within the home, relationships outside the home, working relationships and, worryingly, mental health. Mental health issues are important for everyone, and wellbeing is critical. I am fortunate to live on a farm, which means that whenever I go home, I can go for a walk every day. I have had the opportunity to do that, but many people are stuck in a house or a flat with family living on top of each other. It must be extremely difficult to try to make do.
One hon. Member referred to suicide, which has been unfortunately prevalent in my constituency. There was a story in The Mail on Sunday yesterday about suicides among young men in particular. We express great concern about that, and we look for what must be done to try to make things better.
Today, I am speaking out on behalf of those who own gyms and boxing clubs, and I particularly want to mention dance classes. One of my constituents, a young lady called Hannah McKillen, started her dance class about six months before the lockdown came in. It was quite a move for her. I understand very clearly the issues for her and what we need to do. I hope and believe that we will come out of this very soon—the sooner, the better.
A constituent who is a dance instructor wrote to me today. She is surviving on universal credit. She just bought her house before lockdown, and she finds herself financially restricted in what she is able to do. We really need to have those things back in place.
I received an email from a 77-year-old constituent, about golf. He says he cannot understand why he is unable to take part in a sport that is socially distanced and essential for his mental as well as physical health. He writes: “I am a 77-year-old golfer. I am really disbelieving when golf courses can open on 1 April, but only allowing for two-balls. Four-balls from two families is really, in 99% of cases, a two-ball. On the golf course we are keeping social distancing. Only one person to a golf buggy. Flags stay in the hole and no one handles them. Bunkers are in play but there are no rakes for players to touch. Only one person at a time allowed to the pro shop. The clubhouse is closed. Players arrive 10 minutes before their tee time, so there are not a number of players queueing up, and at the end of the game they touch elbows, fully clothed. We do not exercise, and I believe the golf gives me (a) exercise and (b) something to look forward to.”
That came from a very fit 77-year-old who clearly understands what it means to get exercise. It is difficult for me to explain the situation to such constituents—there are many others like him—who credit their great health in their later years to their games of golf. They also say there is a benefit to their mental health, in terms of preventing isolation. I believe that a reasoned approach such as the road map needs to be utilised more fully, and consideration should be given to such sports as outdoor swimming that provide benefits with little risk of transmission.
I am incredibly grateful for the wonderful job that has been done on the roll-out of covid vaccines throughout the UK. I thank the Prime Minister and the Government for taking good steps at the right time, unlike other nations. Now we are reaping the benefits, and the economy will shortly reap them as well. We may be in a unique position, coming out of all the lockdowns. We have vaccinated our most vulnerable and, indeed, the roll-out for 50-year-olds is fairly well advanced. Success is seen with the decrease in deaths. While the goal remains nationwide vaccination, I believe that the completion of vaccination of the vulnerable gives us the freedom to allow sensible steps. I think that people want them, and I hope that they come sooner rather than later, to allow all children back into schools, golfers back on the course with safety measures, and sea swimmers the safety of swimming close to others.
We need to look towards telling shopkeepers they can open, with strict number guidelines. The economy needs that, and it can be done as safely in a shoe shop as in Tesco. We can take those steps because of the success of the roll-out. Now is the time, as we come into the milder weather, to map out carefully how we can safely go forward. People are waiting for direction and for the return of normality. Sweeping generalisations are not enough. They need the detail, and I believe we and the Government must provide that for them. They all need to understand the logic behind all the decisions and the timescale for the much-awaited return.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am happy to participate today, and I thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for opening this wide-ranging debate.
It is important to acknowledge the various concerns and frustrations of all the signatories to the five petitions that we are considering. The extent of what we are debating, from repealing the coronavirus legislation—because the Coronavirus Act 2020 is seen as an existential threat to our rights and freedoms—to closing all early years environments as a way of protecting staff during lockdown, demonstrates the breadth of the worries and uncertainty that the pandemic has created in our lives. The concerns in the petitions reflect the complexities that must be considered as a way out of lockdown is plotted, because we know we cannot continue in lockdown indefinitely or until the vaccination programme is completed.
Conversely, we also know that easing restrictions too fast could mean a rise in transmission of the disease and going back to significant mortality and morbidity and the risk of overwhelming our NHS. Therefore, while acknowledging the petitioners’ concerns during the debate, we should recognise that Governments globally have had to make some difficult choices over the past year. Unfortunately, the difficult choices endure because the virus is not yet gone. As it mutates into potentially more harmful variants—we have witnessed countries entering a third wave—current decisions continue to require a consideration of competing challenges.
The SNP Scottish Government’s covid-19 strategy intends to suppress the virus to the lowest possible level and keep it there while striving to return to a more normal life for as many people as possible. Additionally, the Scottish Government have made clear their prioritisation of education and a phased return for early learning, childcare and schools. I mention that in relation to e-petition 566718: “Shut all nurseries and early years settings during lockdown”. In Scotland, as in other countries, that was impossible as some had to remain open for childcare provision for our key workers at the forefront of our covid-19 response.
In their phased return of all children to nurseries and early years settings, the Scottish Government took advice from the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues, which examined the occupational risks of covid-19 infection, hospitalisation and death. The available studies found no evidence of any difference between school staff and the wider workforce in terms of the risk of infection from covid-19. None the less, in order to help educational settings remain as safe as possible and implement safety mitigations, the Scottish Government are providing local authorities and schools with an additional £40 million as part of a wider £100 million package to accelerate school recovery, and will work with local authorities to support young people’s wellbeing in other ways, for example by providing more opportunities for outdoor learning.
Many councils are using some of the funding to monitor and improve ventilation in schools. Additionally, the Scottish Government offer twice-weekly lateral flow testing for all school staff in primary, secondary and special schools. Recent developments with the vaccine roll-out and the increased contagion of covid-19 led the Scottish Government to update their strategic framework, which sets out how they plan to restore in a phased way greater normality to our everyday lives.
Normality for many is playing golf regularly. I refer here to e-petition 557167: “Allow golf to be played with appropriate safety measures”. In Scotland, golf is permitted as an outdoor informal exercise as long as safety restrictions are adhered to. For example, although everyone should stay as close to home as possible, from 12 March four players from two households can travel up to five miles from their local authority boundary to play golf in a physically distanced way. Also, if a course has a designated covid officer, up to 15 adults can participate in organised golf if they live within the local authority area. This decision took the nature of golf into account, recognising the benefits of outdoor activity and consistent evidence that the risks of the virus transmitting outdoors are low.
Similarly, outdoor gyms can be open in Scotland, which goes some way to addressing e-petition 563904: “Keep gyms open during Tier 4 lockdown”. However, I can understand why outdoor gyms might not always be appealing, given our weather conditions. The Scottish Government know that indoor gyms and fitness facilities provide important services that help improve the physical fitness and mental wellbeing of those who attend, but it was impossible to keep them open while areas were facing high infection rates. Related to that is e-petition 567492: “Open gyms first as we come out of lockdown & fund a Work Out to Help Out scheme”. I am sure the petitioners will be pleased to know that the Scottish Government have not prioritised the opening of pubs ahead of gyms and swimming pools, and have made grants available to help businesses reopen progressively.
On e-petition 313310—“Repeal the Coronavirus Act 2020”—Scottish National party MPs have serious concerns about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the powers in the UK’s Coronavirus Act, and we raised them on Second Reading. That is why the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 contains a range of measures to ensure scrutiny of Scottish Government decisions. Also, where possible, provisions in the Scottish coronavirus legislation have been suspended or have expired when they have either fulfilled their purpose or the Scottish Government have listened to compelling views supporting change.
This has been a wide-ranging debate. I think it is fair to say that we are on the road out of lockdown. Perhaps it is not as fast as some would like, but there is a delicate balance to be struck and we must get it right. To that end, for continued suppression of the virus in the UK as we come out of lockdown, I urge the UK Government to follow the Scottish Government’s example on hotel quarantines. The recent Public Health England study showing that quarantine-free travel corridors contributed to the spread of coronavirus in the UK last year highlights the need for the change. Travel from those European countries accounted for 86% of imported cases between May and September, so I sincerely hope that the Minister and the UK Government will think again on that.
Businesses and individuals must continue to be helped through the remainder of the restrictions. With health measures and covid restrictions being devolved matters, I stress that while restrictions continue in any part of the UK, support must continue as well. While we welcome the extension of furlough at the spring Budget, it should continue for as long as it is needed. There must also be sector-specific support for aviation, hospitality and tourism.
Due to the highly infectious nature of coronavirus, general anti-coronavirus measures may be needed until a sufficient proportion of the population is vaccinated, and unlocking must be driven by data, not dates. In terms of vaccinations, that may mean about 70% of the population and, moving forward, many restrictions remaining in place for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. With the recent news of disruption to supplies of vaccines in the UK, it is possible that the roll-out may be delayed. If that is the case, the dates for unlocking the last steps of lockdown may need to be postponed. The UK Government should, like the Scottish Government, endorse a data-driven approach to the end of lockdown and not persist with set dates, because they previously over-promised.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship virtually, Mr Mundell. I also thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (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 the hon. Member for Keighley (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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for bringing this debate on a range of important subjects that cross multiple Government Departments. I really appreciated the way he eloquently articulated the concerns of the petitioners, as well as those of his constituents. Each petition has been signed by at least 100,000 people—some by many more—which speaks volumes about the importance of these industries and sectors to people right across the country, and it is therefore an honour to respond.
These petitions have been grouped but, as I said, they cover multiple Government Departments. Although I am representing DCMS here today, I assure hon. Members that Ministers and officials in other Departments are listening too. It is also worth noting at the outset that, since these petitions were initiated, the Prime Minister has announced a road map that will lead us out of the current lockdown in England—subject, of course, to the latest data and scientific advice. I mention that because the road map is relevant to each of these petitions. It seeks to balance our key social and economic priorities while preserving the health and safety of the country. It gives us a prudent and pragmatic pathway out of national restrictions, and it also supersedes the tier system to which some of the petitions debated this evening refer. May I also say that I appreciate the tone of today’s debate? I think that our constituents appreciate it when we take the party politics out of things. There is a great deal of agreement across parties on the issues raised, and I think we all share similar goals in these matters.
The first petition calls for the repeal of the Coronavirus Act 2020. It is no exaggeration to say that the pandemic has had a profound impact on the lives of everyone in the UK. The Act, passed in March 2020, is vital because it provides the legislative framework for managing the pandemic. It also introduced emergency powers to support individuals and businesses and enabled critical public services to function during the pandemic. For example, the Act successfully removed unnecessary barriers to allow suitably experienced people, such as recently retired NHS staff and social workers, to rejoin the workforce during the pandemic. It also provided financial support to individuals and businesses, and it enabled essential public services to function.
The Government made a commitment that powers will be in place only as long as is necessary and proportionate for managing the current pandemic. Where measures have been put in place, they are often subject to additional checks and balances, such as sunset clauses or fixed review points. Petitioners will be interested to know that debates will take place in both Houses of Parliament this week, on 25 March, on the non-devolved aspects of the Coronavirus Act, and votes will be taken on their renewal.
I turn now to the second e-petition, which calls for all nurseries and early years settings to be shut during lockdown. It was with great reluctance that we restricted attendance at early years settings during the first national lockdown in March last year. However, the restrictions put in place as part of the most recent national lockdown enable us to continue to prioritise keeping nurseries and childminders open, supporting parents and delivering the crucial care and education needed for our children. Early years settings have therefore been open to all children since 1 June 2020, and there is no evidence that the early years sector has contributed to a significant rise in virus cases within the community. Current evidence suggests that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and unlikely to be playing a driving role in transmission.
The petition specifically raises concerns about the risk to nursery and early years staff. The Department for Education has worked extremely closely with the Department of Health and Social Care, and with Public Health England, to develop guidance, including a system of controls, for early years settings to follow. This aims to create an environment for children and staff where the risk of transmission of infection is substantially reduced.
The guidance includes, for example, enhanced cleaning, regular hand-washing, staff wearing face coverings in communal areas, minimising mixing within settings, and the isolation of the close contacts of positive cases. Rapid testing is also a key part of the controls, and all years staff can now access lateral flow home testing. We continue to listen carefully to the latest scientific and medical advice, and we keep our guidance under review to make sure the right controls are in place.
I turn to the three remaining petitions, which dominated today’s debate and are more relevant to my role as sport Minister. The first calls for golf to be allowed under appropriate safety measures, the second calls for gyms to reopen now and the third calls for a work out to help out scheme.
The importance of sport and physical activity to the nation’s physical and mental health has never been more apparent. That was mentioned in the speeches given today by the hon. Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Greg Smith) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and by all the Opposition spokespeople, so everybody recognises it.
Sport and physical activity are a powerful defence against the covid-19 pandemic, and that has been reflected in the Government’s approach in each of the lockdowns, with the importance of regular exercise being recognised and highlighted. Grassroots sport has been prioritised in the Prime Minister’s road map above the return of every other part of the economy, as was recognised by my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham and for Keighley. Our national life is going to come back stronger and healthier as a result of this focus.
The road map introduces a step approach to the return of outdoor and indoor sports areas across England, including the reopening of golf courses, gyms and exercise studios. Most immediately, and subject to the latest data, sport returns from 29 March, which is when outdoor sports facilities can reopen. That will broaden the options for outdoor exercise and recreation for us all. I know that all who signed the petition to allow golf to reopen will be pleased to know that they can take to the greens and fairways again in England in a week’s time—including in four-balls.
The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), spoke about the importance of sport in helping with our physical and mental health, and he mentioned the economic importance of sport, including golf. We had a similar debate recently in Westminster Hall, highlighting the hundreds of millions of pounds that sport brings into the economy. Golf tourism alone is worth well over £400 million, and I assure hon. Members that in my combined role as Minister for sport and tourism, I am very aware of that.
Formally organised outdoor sports for all ages can also restart from 29 March, including team sports, individual sports and organised sports participation events. These will not be subject to the gathering limits, but should be compliant with guidance issued by national governing bodies. We appreciate the work that national governing bodies have conducted over the last year to create that guidance, while working very closely with Government.
Step 2 will commence no earlier than 12 April, when we will see the reopening of some sections of our indoor economy, including gyms and fitness centres for individual use. Exercise classes will be able to resume as part of step 3 of the road map, no earlier than 17 May. Unfortunately, we cannot open everything at once, although I hear the appeals of hon. Members who wish exercise classes to reopen as soon as possible. I believe this is a reasonable step forward. Of course, the intention of all in Government is to try and get as much open as possible as soon as possible, but in a safe way.
On that note, I would also like to express my appreciation for and applaud the work done by the gyms and leisure sector, as mentioned by many hon. Members today. The sector has put considerable time, effort and expense into making sure that facilities are safe, and that is hugely important in building members’ confidence as well as showing that it wishes to protect staff. I welcome the return, in a secure manner, of the many hundreds of thousands of people who are absolutely passionate about going back to their gyms. I cannot wish to compete with the hon. Member for Ilford South in his bench pressing, but I think we all share his passion to see gyms open again as soon as possible.
I understand why so many have supported the petition to introduce a work out to help out scheme—in a similar vein to the Chancellor’s eat out to help out scheme, which was launched last summer—to support the fitness and leisure sectors through this time. People are, understandably, very keen to do their bit to help struggling gyms and fitness centres, as well as keeping fit themselves. I understand the sentiments behind the proposal, but the Government have provided support in other ways, including through tax reliefs, cash grants, employee wage support and loans, to ensure that these facilities survive and can open again as part of step 2 of the road map.
Hon. Members have suggested other measures, and we have had conversations with ukactive and others about whether the current VAT cut for tourism and hospitality could be extended to the leisure sector. I could never make commitments or promises on behalf of the Treasury, as you well know, Mr Mundell, but I can say that conversations are taking place. Such things are, of course, always subject to Treasury decisions. This is a challenging area, but I hear the appeals made today by hon. Members, ukactive and others, as I am sure do the Treasury.
The Government have provided more than £100 million to support 266 local authority leisure centres, and Sport England has provided more than £220 million to community sports clubs to promote them and ensure that these facilities can open. The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who I have a great deal of respect for, raised several questions about priority. We have seen throughout the last few weeks the Government’s emphasis on sport and physical activity. I assure her that that is a focus of mine, too, as would be expected of a sport Minister.
The hon. Member was right to mention the work of Sport England, the arm’s length body for grassroots sport, which promotes sport and activity levels across the country. Sport England plays a pivotal role in the Government’s sport and activity strategy, and it will continue to do so. It has articulated its 10-year plan, which we completely support, and the Government will be articulating their strategy. Today, for example, I spoke to a Minister in the Department for Education about the importance of sport and physical activity at school. We will also be refreshing the school sport and activity action plan. There will be lots of work and focus from Government, across Departments, as we continue to focus on the importance of physical and mental health and the benefits of sport and physical activity.
I am delighted that sport and recreation are at the forefront of hon. Members’ minds as we begin to open up our society and economy after the devastation and destruction of coronavirus, which has impacted all our lives. The pandemic has also been an opportunity to reflect on the sort of country that we want to build in the future—the sort of Britain that we wish to rebuild. As sport Minister, I will work hard to make us as healthy and fit a nation as possible so that we come back stronger than ever. I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the Chamber to achieve just that.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken the time to speak in this important debate, and I thank the Minister for taking the time to address the concerns of the petitioners and signatories. It has been a pleasure to lead my first Westminster Hall debate.
I particularly thank the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), who rightly pointed out that, as healthier people take fewer days off sick, a national strategy that promotes exercise will benefit businesses and individuals as we come out of the economic downturn. Furthermore, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), who spoke of the positive impact of exercise on mental health. I am delighted that he agrees that the Government should strive to set up a work out to help out scheme.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to commend the Prime Minister. We have now vaccinated over half the adult population of the UK and continue to make great strides in the fight against coronavirus. I know that the Government’s road map will come as welcome news to all who started and signed the petitions; it confirms that the Government are committed to removing restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so. I thank all the petitioners and signatories once again for all their hard work in keeping themselves and others as healthy as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 313310, 557167, 563904, 566718 and 567492, relating to the Government’s Spring 2021 Covid-19 roadmap.