An Open letter to Boris Johnson PM and Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Sport.
In yesterday’s announcement of the easing of lockdown restrictions, you announced that pubs and restaurants could now reopen, but that community sport could not, the rationale being that it is not yet safe to do so due to the number of surfaces that are touched and the risk of contact.
Across the country, an enormous cohort of sports coaches and children were utterly devastated by this decision and their coaches and parents now have to explain to them that they can visit the shops and go to the pub, but they cannot see their friends in a sport setting and they cannot return to training at the sports they love.
It seems extraordinary to me that it is now acceptable for hoards of adults to go shopping and get drunk in a pub, but a child cannot go and swim in a chlorinated pool or work at their sport in a large airy building where their coaches will be carefully managing the risks. They can go to school if they are one of the chosen few to return, but they cannot walk into another building and work on their fitness. It seems incredible that we have chosen to risk the R-rate for alcohol consumption but not for health and welfare.
Children train in sports like gymnastics at all sorts of levels. In our club we have talented ones who have worked for years to finally achieve the goal of a level of competition that has now, through no fault of theirs, been taken from them and we have little talented ones missing out on the start of a journey that is enormously dependant on age and hitting the right skills at the right age. But we also, just as importantly, have little ones who live for their hour a week in the club, children who only started speaking to anyone when they found their happy place in a gym, children who have no confidence anywhere else but were erupting into positive mental health through an unexpected passion for their sport at their level. We have teens who have found fitness and self belief instead of apathy and obesity. And they are all important to us, every one just the same as any other. Elite sportsmen and sportswomen might be good for the international view of Britain, but it is in the every day general gymnastics – at ground level – where we make the differences that keep children from being depressed, lonely, or going off the rails.
This country’s children NEED their sports clubs back. They have been at home for 13 weeks, they are missing their friends, they are lonely, they are bored and for those following their own pathways to success at their own level, they are losing confidence, fitness and their dreams are slipping away from them. They are losing faith that the people in charge care about them. Their coaches play a massive part in their welfare and their safeguarding – we are part of their lives and when that link is severed, we do not know the long term impact on some of our most vulnerable children.
As gymnastics coaches we manage risk every day, the lives of our gymnasts are in our hands with every skill we ask them to do, with every set up of the gym, with every equipment check. We are skilled at risk assessment, we are adept at change and we adapt our working environment to fit different needs on an almost hourly basis. We can adapt our environments to work with social distancing, we can wipe, clean, sanitize and manage our environments and we can make it as safe as it is possible to be to train our members
The question is NOT whether it is yet safe to reopen this country to a nearly normal way of life; we all have our views on this and whether the changes are happening too slow or too fast is a matter for debate. As gym owners and coaches we are far from blasé about the risks of COVID-19. But the government have repeatedly said that the children of this country are at low risk of being ill themselves and are low transmitters and it is safe for them to be in school. How then, can it be more safe for any number of random, only concerned for themselves people, to visit a pub than it can be for our members (who we already have all the contact details for) to visit their gym in small and well managed numbers, where it is in the community interest not to attend if they know they may be infectious.
Gymnastics clubs come in all shapes and sizes but one thing most have in common is the large space we need to teach our sport. Our rents are expensive, our equipment leases are not being cancelled or postponed, our myriad of costs are ongoing. Not all of us have charitable trusts behind us, some of us are recently opened, very few have large banks of money behind us. We are struggling. It seems incredibly unfair that we are being asked to make government grants stretch further than pubs and restaurants, with no additional help forthcoming. Community based sports clubs exist one month to the next, driven by passion, not profit and managed with risk and caution built into every decision we make. Let us make our risk assessments and our own decisions, give us the summer to pay back members who have supported us and rebuild our gymnastics environments and nurture and fix our athletes.
It is very hard to believe that votes and cronyism have not played a part in the decision to put alcohol consumption ahead of the health and the welfare of children. I call on you to prove otherwise.