Coronavirus: Fitness industry ‘devastated’ by lockdown


Gareth Johnson with striking coach Michael Lucy at Gym01 Image copyright Gym01
Image caption Gareth Johnson with striking coach Michael Lucy

The fitness industry has been “devastated'” by the Covid-19 pandemic, the trade body UKActive has warned.

It is calling for government support for sports and leisure facilities, similar to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme for the food sector.

Its suggestions include a VAT reduction, a pause on National Insurance contributions and help with backdated rent arrears.

One gym owner told the BBC business had got worse since it reopened.

“People think that now we’re open we’re OK, but the guidelines mean we can’t really carry out our business in any way near what we were doing before, and we still have full overheads to pay,” said Gareth Johnson, who co-owns a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) gym in Portsmouth.

Mixed Martial Arts – which combines a number of fighting disciplines including kickboxing, jiu-jitsu and wrestling – requires close physical contact during training.

Strict rules around contact between people mean MMA fighters cannot spar at his gym at all.

Training bubble

Mr Johnson thinks Covid rules should include a “training bubble” so two people from different households can train together.

He has written to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his local MP Stephen Morgan asking for support, and has the backing of Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt.

In a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, seen by the BBC, Ms Mordaunt writes: “I would like to support a bubble so that people can have an exercise partner outside of their household who they can train with”.

She adds it would be “greatly beneficial if we could have a fund to enable healthcare professionals to prescribe a gym membership.”

Fighting for survival

British UFC fighter Molly McCann and Commonwealth Games boxer Jonathan Francois are among those who have trained at Mr Johnson’s Gym01.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption UFC fighter Molly McCann

At its peak, it had 1,000 members but can now only operate at 20% capacity within the new guidelines.

Gyms were allowed to reopen in England on 25 July after just over four months of lockdown, but by then the gym had lost over half its members, with many facing financial difficulties themselves.

Others have been too nervous to return, or feel they cannot do the exercise they want.

“When we reopened I had an air of excitement that everyone was going to come and train and get fit – and it just didn’t come through,” Mr Johnson said.

“We’re in a hell of a lot of debt that we are struggling to pay.”

Under the guidelines, which apply to all sports facilities, gyms must follow strict hygiene and social distancing measures.

A recent study by UKActive found that there were eight million gym visits made by people in England in the first three weeks after they reopened.

While 17 people later informed gyms they had tested positive for Covid-19 there was no suggestion they had become infected while at the gym.

“Covid-19 has devastated the fitness and leisure sector, with many businesses having zero income but still facing overhead costs,” said UKActive CEO Huw Edwards.

“With government support, we can keep fitness facilities open at a time when they are needed the most.”

Image copyright NHS
Image caption The NHS Better Health website does not include information about gyms

The government has launched a campaign urging people to get fitter.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has himself hired a personal trainer to help him lose weight.

But Gareth Johnson feels the Better Health campaign has excluded the commercial fitness sector.

“If you go on to the NHS website there are links were you can pay for diet clubs or online training videos, but no mention at all of going to a gym,” he said.

Insurance hit

Gym01 is also one of hundreds of UK businesses affected by a dispute over whether “business interruption” insurance policy extensions should include losses incurred as a result of the pandemic.

Insurers say they do not and most have not paid out on related claims.

A court ruling is due next month after the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) brought a case citing 17 examples of business interruption claims involving various insurance firms, eight of which are taking part.

For Mr Johnson, that resolution can’t come soon enough.

“We need our insurance to pay out and we need something that’s going to encourage people to come and train,” he says.

“This is 10 times worse than the last recession. We are massively worried about the future.”