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Welsh gym operators furious over Welsh government's u-turn in gym reopening - ukactive issues challenge

By Tom Walker    22 Feb 2021
First Minister Mark Drakeford said gyms wouldn't be able to open until 'better evidence emerges' - but didn't explain what that might be / Shutterstock/ComposedPix

The re-opening of gyms in Wales has been pushed back by the country's First Minister – just two weeks after one of his ministers promised that health clubs and leisure centres would be among the first businesses allowed to reopen.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said that very strict rules for exercise would stay in place for the foreseeable future, despite Wales' COVID-19 rates being at the lowest levels since September 2020 (according to Public Health Wales, 378 new coronavirus cases were reported in Wales on 16 February, the lowest figure since 317 cases on 27 September).

Yet on 1 February, Eluned Morgan, the Welsh Government's mental health and wellbeing minister, had said fitness facilities and swimming pools were "crucial" for the nation's health.

"When we do re-open, gyms will be one of the first things we consider," she had said.

Drakeford said the decision to go back on that pledge was due to "new guidance" provided by the Welsh government's scientific advisors.

The U-turn has infuriated the country's physical activity operators, who have accused Drakeford and his government of misrepresentation and an "inconsistent and erratic" approach.

Huw Edwards, CEO of industry body ukactive, said: "Unfortunately, we need to address the inconsistent statements made by the Welsh First Minister 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 virus.

"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."

What did Mark Drakeford say?

Speaking at a press conference on 19 February, Drakeford said the following:

"Since the Eluned Morgan pointed to the mental health advantages of people being able to use gyms – and she's the mental health government in government – we've now had this further advice from our technical advisory group.

"Their anxiety is that the Kent variant, which is so much more transmissible, so much more infectious, than the original form of coronavirus, that that may make gyms particularly vulnerable to being places (sic) where the virus is spread.

"So I don't anticipate that we will see gyms reopening – certainly not in the next three weeks.

"But the evidence will accumulate over the weeks ahead as we gradually allow more things to happen.

"Whether or not allowing people to get together, with the new Kent variant, will lead to the virus coming back (sic) at a very quick rate. If it doesn't, then the technical advisory group will revisit its advice and we will see what might be able to be done.

"I acknowledge everything that Eluned said about exercise, leisure centres and gyms – it isn't just physical fitness, it's mental wellbeing as well."

Drakeford – a former university lecturer – also mentioned a need for "better evidence" in relation to gyms reopening, but failed to articulate what evidence he was referring to and how this new evidence would "emerge" if gyms remained closed.

"At the moment the advice is that we must be precautionary and we mustn't put that (gyms reopening) at the front of the queue and therefore we will not be able to do that until better evidence emerges," he said.

Wales  Mark Drakeford  Eluned Morgan  gyms  health clubs  leisure centres 
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