One of the many discoveries of the last 14 months has been how Covid-19 seeks out underlying vulnerabilities. These are as plural and complex as the people they afflict. But one vulnerability the government has, rightly, pinpointed as something to be addressed is obesity. In 2019, the year leading into the pandemic, figures for England showed over a million hospital admissions for causes directly related to obesity, with 67% of men and 60% of women overweight or obese. Months of lockdown are not likely to have improved this. Boris Johnson, recognising that his weight may have contributed to his hospitalisation with Covid-19, has been banging the drum on the need to achieve a healthy weight; and the government is promoting “weight management services”.
It is a pity, then, that the means so far made available to local communities do not support the laudable end. Earlier this month, the former Paralympian Lady Grey-Thompson told Mr Johnson that more than 50% of public leisure facilities are at risk of closing in the next six months. The next day, the District Councils’ Network (DCN), which represents 180 district councils providing leisure services in England, noted that one in three councils expected to close leisure centres for good in the next three months, and over half in the next year. Of those able to remain open, 80% expected to decrease services. The government will point to its recent grant of £100m for leisure centres and a £18,000 restart sum for individual gyms – but the DCN survey was conducted after the awarding of this grant. A funding gap of £325m remains.
Commercial gyms certainly have an important role to play in keeping England active. A major beneficial side-effect, of course, is that such activity can also help with mental health: studies have shown even 10 minutes of regular exercise may mitigate depression. But community leisure centres provide this and far more. Corporate outfits, for instance, in view of how expensive swimming pools are to maintain, tend not to provide them. Leisure centres often contain creches, parents’ clubs, and act as affordable venues for family celebrations; they provide school swimming lessons and host all manner of local clubs.
The DCN survey also found that 79% had been used in social prescription programmes, while 65% said they had run schemes intended to tackle the epidemic of loneliness. Others run activities for disabled people, dementia initiatives, and rehab of all kinds. At a time when up to two-thirds of youth organisations with incomes under £250,000 are warning they may have to close, leisure centres are somewhere to go that is not the streets. They are on the whole more affordable than gyms and often provide concessions and subsidies. Research by the King’s Fund discovered that for every £1 invested in a leisure centre, £23 in value is created.
Community leisure centres are, like libraries or indeed the NHS, a measure of our commitment to all aspects of England’s health and resilience, and to the narrowing of inequalities. They must not be allowed to close.