Many hundreds of gyms and swimming pools will go out of business this winter if new post-lockdown restrictions being considered for England force them to remain closed, industry leaders have warned.
Huw Edwards, the chief executive of ukactive, said the government was thought to be considering keeping gyms and pools closed as part of a tradeoff for reopening other parts of the economy, such as pubs and restaurants, in December.
The prime minister is due to make a statement on Monday setting out a new system of tiers. The Guardian understands that all the new tiers will allow gyms to remain open, along with non-essential shops, although these exemptions may yet be revisited again if case levels rise steeply.
Pubs and restaurants have demanded a week’s warning of new rules that would kick in after the English lockdown ends on 2 December.
The UK’s 7,000 gyms, pools and leisure centres have sought to be reclassified as essential services vital to public health. The move is being debated by MPs on Monday after a petition attracted more than 600,000 signatures.
Gyms are currently shut in England and parts of Scotland, and are due to close in Northern Ireland on Friday. To further penalise the fitness industry would be a “political choice”, Edwards said as there was “no science” to support the idea that its venues were a source of infection.
Public Health England has also warned that any respite at Christmas would be paid for with tough restrictions afterwards. Shutdowns in January and February would be even more damaging for gyms, as it is their busiest period with Britons undertaking new year fitness regimes.
Edwards said having to shut again in the new year would be another hard blow for businesses. “Missing out on those months would be devastating, and we could end up losing up to 20% of all facilities if there is a sustained period of closure.”
About two-thirds of gyms and leisure centres in England are in private hands, with the 2,116 council-owned sites typically run by charitable trusts on their behalf. While the big chains have been bailed out by deep-pocketed investors, the operators of public facilities, which are often providing services for less affluent communities, are struggling.
Last week, GLL, the UK’s biggest leisure trust, which has more than 270 leisure centres – including the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park venues – on its books, announced that Oasis, the Swindon leisure centre that gave one of the UK’s biggest bands its name, was closing. Other centres, including sites in Preston and Newcastle, have already shut.
Mark Sesnan, the GLL chief executive, said it had used up its £20m rainy-day fund during the first quarantine. The Oasis centre, he said, relied “on getting a lot of people through the door. The business model doesn’t work under social distancing and it doesn’t work when you are shut. The costs are unsustainable.”
Sesnan is worried the government will decide gyms and pools can’t open because it sees the industry as “easy pickings”. Public leisure facilities were “very vulnerable,” he said. “Furlough covers 80% of the staff costs, but that is only half of our costs and the other ones don’t go away. You can’t run a business on fresh air.”
The Gym Group, which is listed on the stock exchange and raised £40m from its investors during the first lockdown, said even with the furlough scheme this month’s closure would see it burn through £6m.
Richard Darwin, its chief executive, said it was hard to minimise costs when venues were closed for a relatively short period. “We’re the only PLC, so we’ve got a strong balance sheet … we will be one of the survivors. But if you can see that sort of cashburn impacting us, you get an indication of what it means for smaller operators and the public sector.”
For GLL, when they were allowed to reopen in the summer, the mood had been one of optimism, then the second lockdown came “out of the blue”.
“There is a limit to the resilience of any business,” said Sesnan. “If we end up with on-off lockdowns throughout the winter, I don’t think GLL will survive.”