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Sports minister 'understands sentiments' behind Work Out to Help Out

By Tom Walker    24 Mar 2021
During the debate, a number of MPs highlighted how fitness facilities played a key role in improving the nation's physical and mental health / Shutterstock/Robert Kneschke
I have had conversations with ukactive and others to see whether we can extend the VAT cut, which currently exists for the tourism and hospitality sectors
– Nigel Huddleston

It is unlikely that the UK will see a Work Out to Help Out scheme being introduced, despite sports minister Nigel Huddleston saying he "understood" why so many people are backing one.

The scheme – which would offer people subsidised access to health clubs and leisure centres – has widespread support across the physical activity sector and the public, with nearly 230,000 people signing a petition calling for the government to fund the initiative.

The petition, started by HCM Editor Liz Terry MBE, resulted in a debate on the possibility of a Work Out to Help Out programme being held at the House of Commons on Monday (22 March 2021).

Based on the debate, there is also support for the scheme within Westminster, with a number of MPs backing it.

Numerous MPs spoke in favour of it, highlighting how fitness facilities played a crucial role in improving the nation's physical and mental health and also how the health and fitness sector had suffered badly from the pandemic lockdowns.

To watch a recording of the debate, click here

Sam Tarry, the Labour MP for Ilford South, made a particularly passionate call for a Work Out to Help Out initiative to be funded.

"The lockdowns have resulted in people being confined to their homes for months at a time, unable to exercise in the way they were previously accustomed to," he said.

"This has led to rising levels of obesity and mental health issues, which places further pressures on our NHS.

"There's also the impact on the health and fitness sector, which like so many other sectors, has been left in a perilous position, after suffering a sharp drop in revenues over the past 12 months.

"Health clubs and leisure centres should be recognised as wellbeing hubs and given the support they need to survive and help revive our nation's flagging physical and mental health.

"Nearly a quarter of a million people have signed a petition to fund a Work Out to Help Out scheme, which would see gym memberships, group exercise classes and personal training classes being subsidised, to offer more people access to health and fitness services.

"This would provide a timely economic boost to the active leisure industry and have a positive impact on the NHS, in terms of reducing the further strains in the future.

"And of course lift so many gyms and health clubs across the country off their knees."

Greg Smith, Tory MP for Buckingham was also in favour of the scheme.

"Gyms and leisure centres have become a lifeline for many people, including my constituents, many of who have signed the petition.

"The industry is one of the only sectors scientifically proven to be able to support our nation with underlying health conditions.

"Gyms, health clubs and leisure centres are – and must be – part of the COVID-19 solution and I would support a Work Out to Help Out scheme, as called for in the petition.

"A financial incentive that would encourage people to renew long-lapsed gym memberships and to support their local health clubs and leisure centres, either via a tax incentive, a VAT cut or holiday, or something similar to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme – on a pay per use basis – would be good for the businesses as they make every effort to bounce back.

Smith also highlighted the safety record of health clubs – and said closing the sector during lockdowns had been "disappointing".

"Given health and fitness facilities' excellent track record on hygiene and safety – and the corresponding, extremely low incidence of people visiting gyms going on to test positive for COVID-19 – it was, we must acknowledge, a bitter pill that such severe limitations were placed on opportunities to exercise in a safe environment," Smith said.

"I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that the consequences to the physical and mental health of my constituents of these closures have been significant."

Responding to the calls, sports minister Nigel Huddleston recognised the importance of the sector and was sympathetic to the "sentiments being expressed".

He stopped short of endorsing the scheme, however, outlining how the government had provided the physical activity sector with financial support in a number of other ways.

"The importance of sport and physical activity has never been more important to the nation's physical and mental health," Huddleston said.

"They are a powerful defence against COVID-19 and in each of the lockdowns, this has been reflected in the government's approach with the importance of regular exercise being recognised and highlighted.

"I do understand why so many have supported the aim of the Work Out to Help Out scheme – and the sentiments behind it.

"But the government has provided support in other ways, including of course, through tax reliefs, cash grants, employee wage supports, loans and so on to ensure these facilities both survive and are then able to open again as part of Step 2 of the Roadmap."

He also said that further talks – including those with industry bodies, such as ukactive – regarding extra support were still ongoing.

"I know that honourable members have suggested other measures and I have had conversations with ukactive and others to see whether we can extend the VAT cut, which currently exists for the tourism and hospitality sectors.

"I could never make commitments on behalf of the Treasury, but I can tell you that conversations are taking place – but of course these are always subject to Treasury decisions and this is a challenging area.

"The government has also provided £100m worth of support for local authority leisure centres and Sport England provided £220million directly to support community sport clubs and exercise centres through this pandemic."

Prior to the debate, the government had provided an official response to the petition, saying: "We do not intend to fund a Work Out to Help Out Scheme.

"Government has provided unprecedented support to businesses through tax reliefs, cash grants and employee wage support, which many sport clubs have benefited from."

Liz Terry, editor of HCM said: “Seeing so many MPs endorsing the work of the health and fitness industry and the activity sector in Parliament was very powerful and it’s encouraging that the minister has confirmed the door is still open in relation to cuts in VAT for the sector – we should have a level playing field with hospitality and attractions.

“Lobbyists will continue to make an economic and social case for Work Out to Help Out and in the upcoming issue of HCM magazine, activist Nick Whitcombe explains that the scheme could make a net profit for government, while playing a major role in the rebound and revitalisation of the nation after lockdown.

“A sluggish workforce will not be fit the drive the economy, while mental healrh issues abound. We need a boost to get people back to activity, back to fitness and to reenergise the nation and we call on the government to examine this idea with an open mind and to do a cost benefit analysis as soon as possible.”

Work Out to Help Out  Nigel Huddleston  government  exercise  fitness  health club  leisure centre 
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