Rt Hon Oliver Dowden MP
Secretary of State
Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport
100 Parliament Street
London SW1A 2BQ
23 November 2020
I am writing to you about the importance of access to swimming pools and leisure centres during the lockdown. I had hoped to be able to take part in today’s Westminster Hall debate but as the limit of members who could physically participate with social distancing had been reached I am not able to.
I’m sure I don’t need to emphasise to you the importance of exercise for the country’s physical and mental wellbeing. The Government has wisely and correctly emphasised its importance, but I and many of my constituents have been disappointed that the Government’s decisions have not reflected this wisdom.
Since the onset of the pandemic, gyms, pools, and leisure facilities have implemented changes which have greatly reduced the risk of spreading infection so that they are safe to use, even in lockdown. Hygiene, ventilation, and social distancing measures in place before the second lockdown, like those at the David Lloyd club in Burton Waters, were devised with Government input and have proved effective. Since leisure facilities in England re-opened on 25 July of this year, there have experienced over 50 million visits but a COVID rate of just 1.38 per 100,000.
The Lincoln Tennis Academy at Dunholme in my constituency is a good example of a facility which should be open. Tennis is a socially distanced sport in which players are separated by a net. The indoor facility at Dunholme has three courts and there is a full change of air every two hours.
Swimming is a particular passion of mine as I try to swim as often as I can. Because of its positive health impact, swimming is believed to save the NHS more than £357 million per year. Several categories of vulnerable people find swimming particularly advantageous, like those with musculoskeletal conditions or those with balance issues. People struggling with obesity benefit from exercising in water which does not place as great a strain on joints as land-based exercise does.
Swimming pools are chlorinated, controlled environments that are easy to manage well in order to mitigate the risks of transmission. There are around 1,000 public swimming pools in England but somewhere around 15% of these had not even re-opened since closing in March. Pools require proper maintenance and care, and given that over 70% of public leisure facilities are owned by local authorities I worry that not keeping these open and in active use will create a useless financial burden in local finance that is entirely avoidable.
I am also greatly concerned about the effect of continued closure on mental health. The director of one fitness studio in my constituency has told me that during the previous lockdown there were two suicide attempts from within their customer base, and many have been greatly distressed by the second lockdown.
Repeated studies have shown the effectiveness of physical exercise in decreasing rates of depression and improving individuals’ mental health. Excess weight has also been shown to increase the severity and the risk of COVID-19 upon those who suffer from it.
While outdoor options were more readily available during the previous lockdown, the effect of lowering temperatures and seasonal changes is obvious. Britain is a cold and wet country during the autumn and winter, and take-up for outdoor sport will naturally decline with all the consequent negative impact for underlying health just at a time when we need people to be in better condition.
There is also an equality aspect at play for women who are forced to go running after work when the sun has already set. Women are three times more likely to be attacked on the street in this country than men.
In terms of safety, risk reduction, physical and mental health, and financial soundness, there is a very wide body of evidence and argument in favour of keeping our sport and leisure facilities open even in the strongest tier of restrictions. This would produce very strong and welcome outcomes without any significant increase in risk of transmission. I very much hope your department will give it serious consideration.
Thank you for taking the time to look into this and I look forward to hearing back from you.