First Minister Mark Drakeford has been accused by the Welsh leisure industry of “inconsistencies” and “misrepresentation”.
The backlash comes after Mr Drakeford revealed gyms, pools and leisure centres will not be opening any time soon in Wales.
A little over two weeks ago, Eluned Morgan, the Welsh Government’s mental health, wellbeing, and Welsh language minister, insisted gyms and fitness centres would be among the first businesses considered for re-opening when the easing of restrictions began.
But, striking a very different tone, Mr Drakeford said on Friday that he can’t entertain the prospect of re-opening gyms at the next scheduled lockdown review on March 12, citing new advice from the government’s Technical Advisory Group that claims gyms are potentially vulnerable to the Kent variant of the virus.
Realistically, it is likely to be Easter before they are open again.
“Since Eluned Morgan has pointed to the mental health advantage of people being able to use gyms, we’ve now had this further advice from our Technical Advisory Group,” said Mr Drakeford.
“Their anxiety is that the Kent variant, which is so much more transmissible and so much more infectious than the original form of coronavirus, may make gyms particularly vulnerable to being places where the virus is spread.
“So I don’t anticipate that we will see gyms reopening… certainly not in the next three weeks.”
The “new” evidence he referred to has not been published publicly, and ukactive, the body representing the leisure industry in the ongoing discussions with the Welsh Government, insist they have not been shown it.
A previous report from the Technical Advisory Group’s environmental science subgroup did identify “key risks” associated with gyms, leisure centres, and dance or exercise classes. This included “potential for a super-spreading event, infection through aerosol transmission, and infection through direct contact with contaminated surfaces and equipment”.
Ukactive maintain that document was based on outdated evidence and did not properly take into account the mitigation measures which have been put in place over the past year.
Now, in a strongly-worded statement issued on Friday evening, Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, said: “Unfortunately, we need to address the inconsistent statements made by the Welsh First Minister this afternoon regarding the safety of gyms, pools and leisure centres.
“Ukactive helped develop the guidance for the re-opening of gyms, pools, and leisure centres with the Welsh Government, and this was informed by a range of scientific and technical experts, including SAGE and TAG.
“Our sector is an open book and these measures have proven to be effective, making the sector ‘Covid-secure’ once it reopened. Up to 20 December, among facilities sharing data, there had been over 1.8 million visits since reopening in Wales, with a case rate of just 2.06 cases per 100,000 visits.
“We have received no new scientific evidence or rationale behind the statements made by the First Minister. These are particularly troubling and inconsistent given he has referred to concerns over the ‘Kent variant’ linked to gyms, yet there are no proposed changes to social distancing or wider restrictions to the population as a whole.
“Furthermore, there has been no published evidence that the new variant – while more transmissible – travels further, remains suspended longer, or is present in greater quantities in expired air compared with the original Covid-19 variant.
“If the First Minister’s proposals were consistent with the concerns regarding the Kent variant, then sectors which require close human contact would pose the greater risk, and not sectors where social distancing is fully integrated.
“We urge all leaders to make evidence-based statements about the cleanliness and safety of gyms and leisure centres, and we ask the First Minister and the Welsh Government to address these inconsistencies.
“We will work with the Welsh Government to address these inconsistencies and have offered the sector’s full scientific and technical expertise to avoid these unnecessary misrepresentations of a sector that is essential for the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of the people of Wales.”
The real-life impact
While members remain locked out of their gyms, the impact on the smaller, more independent businesses is becoming very real and the frustration was evident in owners of smaller Welsh gyms canvassed by Gist Vile after Friday’s announcement.
“It’s frustration that comes from a lack of clarity. Everyone was hoping to have a little bit of confirmation in this announcement today,” said Robin Sowden-Taylor, who owns ION Strength & Conditioning Facility in Cardiff.
“It’s the worry of not knowing exactly when we’re going to open.
“There’s a lot of positivity around the vaccination side of things and the rates are going down. I understand the importance of easing sensibly but it’s about finding the balance with the economy.
“In the first lockdown we did as much as we could online and we had a lot of members staying with us but it’s really hit hard this time around. We’ve lost a third of our membership.
“With every week that goes by, more and more people are dropping off. It’s really worrying. The financial implications are really starting to hit home.
“Landlords are not giving any relief where rent is concerned and I can understand why but government grants are barely covering anything this time around.”
“The reality is that we’re talking about people’s livelihoods. It’s tough.”
Dai Watkins, owner of The Gym Shed in Llandovery, formed a group of his peers and presented a letter to the Welsh Government last year, highlighting the evidence from ukactive.
He added: “There’s not been one cluster outbreak in a gym across Europe that I’m aware of.
“We’ve not had a single case in my gym.
“I know some of the more urban gyms have had a few but the track and trace system that all the gyms are using means that there have been no cluster outbreaks.
“There is no foundation for this at all. I really don’t understand what’s going on.”
Another source of frustration is the perceived lack of flexibility being shown by the government and the one size fits all approach being adopted.
Sowden-Taylor’s facility is on an industrial estate and has large shutters which can be opened to provide a significant flow of fresh air throughout the building. He has also marked out specific individual work areas on the gym’s vast workout floor, with equipment allocated to each individual box, whilst exceeding social distancing measures.
Watkins’ gym is a similar setup, with equipment adequately spaced out in a large ‘agricultural-type’ building.
Because of their relatively small membership compared to the commercial gyms – like PureGym and DW – they feel they are able to enforce Covid-19 measures with greater ease.
Yet they are viewed through the same lens as the national chains.
“I could quite easily run my business even if we limited it to two people in the building at £7.50 an hour,” said Watkins. “That’s me making £15 an hour and I could make a living out of that if it was busy eight hours a day.
“We’d be looking at something like £900 a week and I can survive on that. I wouldn’t need government handouts and it would be perfectly safe to operate.
“But there’s no flexibility at all.
“It wouldn’t take much for somebody from the council to go to each gym in their area and grade them. They could go around and say: ‘Right, you can have eight people in your gym at any given time’ or whatever it may be.
“Some gyms don’t have the space for that so their numbers would be smaller.
“But somebody from the council could go to each gym and pick a number that they deem reasonable. All we have to do then is get the guys to book in.”
Sowden-Taylor said: “We’ve had very little guidance about how we should be operating all along. At my gym, I feel like we’ve gone above and beyond what would have been perceived as appropriate.
“Before all this, we had around 400 members and we’re being classified as the same as a commercial gym that has thousands of members.
“It’s the easy answer to just close everything instead of looking at individual cases.
“I understand the need for caution but, as this is going on and on, it’s having serious implications on livelihoods and it’s extremely straining.”
For now, though, all gym owners can do is hang on and continue to ride out the most turbulent of storms.
But there are fears over what businesses will look like by the time gyms are eventually allowed to reopen.
“I don’t know how many members are going to come back to the gym,” Watkins admitted. “I think it’ll be a really slow recovery. When we reopened on August 10, it was very slow.
“This is probably costing me the best part of £2,000 per month so I’m personally losing almost £25,000 a year in terms of turnover and salary, which is taking into account the grants from the government.”
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And the implications of all this go beyond the financial.
The links between exercise and mental wellbeing have been heavily documented throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Going to a gym and exercising provides a sense of community and endorphin release that its members cherish and, in the eyes of some, that aspect is being lost in the debate.
“It’s counter-intuitive”, said Leigh-Catherine Salway, whose campaign ‘No Campaign, No Gain’ hopes to get gyms and fitness facilities deemed essential businesses.
“There are people out there who want to remain fit and healthy and there are those who want to become fit and healthy – and I mean that mentally as well as physically – but they’re not allowed.
“There are studies out there that show exercise can help to boost your immunity. We should be encouraging people to exercise in safe environments, which gyms are when you look at the data from Active UK.
“The transmission is so incredibly low. I just can’t see the justification for keeping the gyms closed.”
Agreeing, Sowden-Taylor said: “When we opened back up after the firebreak, we were deemed to be essential and we were in that first wave. We should be seen as an important sector with regards to mental and physical health.
“Our members’ lack of opportunity to exercise the way they want to has had an impact on their mental health. It takes its toll on people.”
So what does the future hold for Welsh fitness facilities?
The immediate future looks bleak but there are hopes of happier times in the summer.
Watkins predicts: “The vibe I’m getting is that we’ll go to outdoor gyms in April and then we’re looking at May or June to get indoor gyms back open.”