The Speaker
Friday, 8 December 2023 – 19:18
Swimming and Gym

Government unveils new obesity strategy – though many leisure facilities struggling to stay afloat

On Monday, the UK Government revealed its new obesity strategy after evidence has shown that those who are obese face a higher risk from the COVID-19 Coronavirus.

A number of measures were announced under the strategy, including plans for TV and online adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt to be banned before 9pm and plans for NHS weight management services to be expanded, including through more self-care apps and online tools for people with obesity-related conditions.

Announcing the new strategy, the government said it wanted to “help people take control of their own future by losing weight, getting active and adopting a healthier lifestyle.” To launch the new Better Health campaign, Boris Johnson was pictured walking his dog Dilyn in the grounds of Chequers.

Exercise hasn’t been the main focus of the revealed strategy, but it is no doubt vital to helping people lead healthy lifestyles. Data would also suggest that exercise does perhaps need to be promoted more – with less than half of children and young people in England thought to be meeting the current government physical activity guidelines, according to NHS data.

Indoor leisure facilities have started to reopen in England after months of closure during lockdown, however, the doors of many venues remain closed.

Socially distanced sport and leisure presents its challenges – many venues now have reduced capacity and equipment has been moved around or removed due to social distancing rules. Some venues also have other restrictions in place – such as requiring bookings in advance. While plenty of people have jumped at the chance to get back to the pool or gym in recent days, restrictions are impacting the confidence of some people to go to their local leisure centres.

The challenge of reduced capacity is thought to be threatening the financial stability of some venues, particularly smaller ones, especially after months of closures due to lockdown.

Jane Nickerson, chief executive of Swim England has welcomed the new measures to help people become fitter and more active but has said the government’s project to tackle obesity is ‘doomed to fail’ if funding is not provided for struggling leisure facilities.

128 days after they closed, indoor swimming pools were allowed to reopen last Saturday, however, it is believed that less than 20% of local authority-owned facilities reopened on the first day. Venues have also been reopening in the private sector, though with reduced capacity – and some facilities do still remain closed. 

Swim England, like the governing bodies for other sports, has set out extensive guidelines and information for centre operators, staff and customers. Social distanced swimming maybe isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but it is possible and early reports have suggested that people have enjoyed making a splash once again.

According to Swim England’s chief executive, facilities remaining shut could actually lead to more childhood obesity and non-active adults. Ms Nickerson said;

“Millions of people were swimming regularly every month prior to lockdown and without facilities to be able to do that, we could see a rise in childhood obesity and people no longer exercising.

“Our clubs play a key role in ensuring youngsters are happy and healthy but without water time, we risk losing them as they find alternative interests to our sports.

“Research has shown that swimming already saves the NHS more than £357 million a year and, due to the unique properties of water, swimming can help people with long-term health conditions, who may find it difficult to exercise on land, to be more active.

“The buoyancy of the water supports those with balance problems and helps to reduce the risk and fear of falling.

Speaking specifically about the government’s new strategy to tackle obesity, Ms Nickerson said;

“I fear this strategy is doomed to fail unless the required support for leisure facilities, and in particular swimming pools, is found.

“That’s why the measures announced today need to be accompanied by the required ring-fenced funding to #SaveLeisure in the UK to help people lead more active lifestyles.”

The financial impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic are affecting many sports and parts of the leisure sector – not just swimming.

While some gyms have now reopened, many remain closed. Community Leisure UK launched a joint #SaveLeisure campaign earlier this month. According to the association, almost half of all public leisure facilities are at risk of permanent closure by the end of 2020, unless they receive financial support from the government. Under the estimations, around 1,300 leisure centres could be lost by the end of the year, along with more than 58,000 jobs that they help to create.

Some health leaders have welcomed the government’s new obesity strategy, though some leisure leaders are uncertain it can be effective as they fear for their facilities’ futures.

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport referenced a recent statement by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick in Parliament. Mr Jenrick said;

I am extremely pleased that leisure centres will be able to open shortly, in a safe and socially distanced manner. The income guarantee scheme that we have already announced will reimburse local councils for 75p in the pound for lost income, including for the leisure centres that they own and operate themselves. I appreciate there are many leisure centres which are not owned and operated by local councils and I’m working with the Culture Secretary to see what further package of support we might be able to bring forward to assist.”

Mr Jenrick said earlier this month that the government “will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with councils and communities as we recover from this pandemic”. He added that £4.3 billion had so far been provided to support local councils facing pressures during the pandemic.

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