Credit: Huw Fairclough /Huw Fairclough 

The number of visits to gyms, swimming pools and leisure centres has fallen by 700 million since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with parliament warned that numerous facilities are on the verge of collapse.

Calling for a three-stage Government plan, which moves from survival and recovery to development, industry leaders predicted “catastrophic" consequences if the sector was not now prioritised.

Huw Edwards, the chief executive of ukactive, which represents public and private operators, said that there was “no crying wolf” and there were now urgent financial problems which mean that gyms and leisure centres are “on the cusp of surviving over the next three months”.

With the average leisure centre costing £60,000 a month just in hibernation, operators are calling for a range of emergency measures, including an extension of business rates relief, a VAT cut to 5 per cent, as is the case in hospitality and tourism, a sharing of rent burden and a ‘work out to help out’ scheme to incentivise gym memberships when restrictions ease.

The economic, health and social importance of a sector that Edwards described as “an essential service…an extension of the health service… and part of the fabric of communities” was also stressed.

Asked if the Government understood the urgency of the situation, Edwards said that “the proof of the pudding is whether we will see the interventions required over the next two or three months for the sector to survive”.

Around 20 per cent of the adult population are members of gyms and leisure centres which have, according to Edwards, increasingly also become modern High Street “anchors”. As well as the vast community benefit, he also highlighted the link to elite sport.

“Unless we want to go back to the Victorian ages and just be represented by a very narrow part of society, we need to preserve these facilities in order to support our elite sport going forward,” he said.

Marge Mayne, a board member of Community Leisure UK, which represents public sector facilities, said that operators had reached a point whereby “they need to know that they have got a way through recovery in order for them to continue to sign off on a going concern”.

Rebecca Passmore, the managing director of PureGym, said that she feared a “long Covid” across the sector. “Over prolonged periods of time, you will see operators go out of business, and the public will have less places to improve their physical and mental wellbeing,” she said.

“There’s this huge cliff edge that’s coming. Some smaller owners are going to have to remortgage or worse still hand back properties they’ve pumped their life savings into.”

Neil Randall, the chief executive of Anytime Fitness UK, said that January and February traditionally attracted 70 per cent more new members than the remaining months of the year and that they were “facing a fight” to survive. “There are already well-documented concerns over people’s mental health during the pandemic and we need to be able to help our nation and our communities to recover their health, rehabilitate those that have had Covid-19 and support the success of the vaccination programme,” he said. “However, sadly, a large proportion of our gyms currently will not be around to do this without additional further Government help.”