‘It’s caused chaos’: Liverpool’s gyms re-open but frustration lingers at government’s erratic approach to lockdown

·4 min read
 (UTS Gym)
(UTS Gym)

Gyms in the Liverpool City Region are to re-open after the government bowed to pressure, but another government U-turn has done little to secure the confidence of an industry that sees itself as vital for keeping the country healthy through lockdown.

Gyms in Merseyside were ordered to close last week when the region became the first to be put under tier 3 lockdown restrictions. But days later, when it was announced Lancashire was to go into tier 3, gyms there were allowed to remain open.

To gym owners and fitness instructors, the inconsistency hardly projected an image of a government in control of a crisis.

"It's caused chaos. It was like a car crash in slow motion,” said Dr Colin Robertson, co-founder and director of UTS Gym in the Wirral.

As soon as tier 3 was announced, local gyms came together and discussed a strategy. All were determined to resist the order to close as best they could.

Some lobbied the government through a trade body UK Active, presenting data to ministers showing that a tiny percentage of transmissions were thought to happen in gyms and fitness centres.

Others, like EmpoweredFit took a more direct approach, opening despite being ordered to close. Nick Whitcombe, a trainer at took a defiant stand on social media, generating huge support and helping to add more names to a petition in support of keeping gyms open that gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures.

“There was such little response from government, we could see where it was going,” says Robertson, who has a PhD in physiology and has conducted research in clinical and public health.

There is an understandable feeling in the fitness industry that the government’s approach of leaving restaurants and many pubs open while shutting down gyms made little sense; another example of not "following the science" and, perhaps more importantly, failing to present the reasoning for decisions made behind closed doors in Westminster.

“We are a vital service, we work in health. We are the only preventative measure, against Covid” said Robertson.

“At this time more than ever, our members more than ever need a gym for that bit of mental space.

“The world at the minute couldn't be any more of a stressful place. Our members come to the gym and they let it all out of the system and know that there are multiple positive health outcomes."

Safety is paramount at UTS and other centres in the area, he said. That’s especially the case because he also runs the UTS Foundation, a charity that offers free training and nutrition advice for people who have, or have had, cancer.

“They’re at higher risk because of the co-morbidity. We've trained our trainers in how to work with people who've had Covid to prepare our workforce to be able to get better. Then you get told to shut down.”

There’s a sense that by ordering them to close, even if only for a short time, the government has tarnished gyms’ reputation as a safe place to go, among a population that’s already fearful.

“People were rightly cautious in the wake of the national lockdown,” said Robertson.

“It's going to be like that again now. It's so hard to get a consistent message from the government and then out through the media.”

For Jonathan Priest, a personal trainer and director of Fitness Wirral, the pandemic has presented an opportunity to expand his fitness business but erratic government messages are putting that at risk.

Some 1,700 customers have signed up for his outdoor fitness classes since the first lockdown began, a success he and his partner aim to channel into starting their own gym.

Jonathan priest has seen huge demand for group fitness classes during the pandemicJonathan Priest
Jonathan priest has seen huge demand for group fitness classes during the pandemicJonathan Priest

“The fact we could be shut down with no notice is a massive concern,” he said.

“The financial side is worrying - having business rates and bills to pay then being closed down without proper support worries us.”

"The big concern is if this happens again, and let’s hope it doesn’t, is will there be enough support for business owners, because I just don’t think what they are offering at the moment is sufficient.”

Robertson is of a similar view: “You’re seeing independent businesses going under because they can't cope, can't weather the storm and you see the impact that has on people's spending, it’s a domino effect.

"It affects everything in the local economy. I don't think we've even reached the fallout from this yet, we're still dealing with the chaos, the tornado.”

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