Following a £1.5million investment in 22 local areas, the Government have also committed a further £10m to help schools open sports facilities outside of teaching times, starting with the Easter holidays. Discussions are also being held over formulating a health and wellbeing measure of schools that could be assessed by Ofsted.

Our Keep Kids Active campaign had called for school sports facilities to be opened to communities during evenings, weekends and holidays, as well as a strategy that will place the benefits of PE on a par with core subjects.

Johnson’s comments follow new research which shows that more than two-thirds of parents believe that their children’s physical activity fell during lockdown. Only 21 per cent of parents reported that their children were active for at least the recommended average of 60 minutes every day.

The survey, which was conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Youth Sports Trust, does also demonstrate the importance of school sport to parents. More than 80 per cent wanted schools to provide at least 30 daily minutes of activity while 78 per cent would like to see at least two hours of PE every week. That is the current national guidance but it is not mandatory and, in practice, children often receive less.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said that there had been a “tangible shift” in awareness during this past year and wants a national focus on physical activity and mental health. “What better legacy could we ever create from a global health crisis than a fitter, healthier Britain,” he said.

Call for sport and physical activity to become a cabinet position

The Government has been urged to elevate sport and physical activity into a key cabinet role as part of a national plan to make Britain the healthiest nation in the world.

A parliamentary inquiry, led by chair Lord Willis and which also includes Baroness Brady and Baroness Grey-Thompson, has been gathering expert evidence ahead of the return from lockdown of grassroots sports on Monday.

Their work has included a detailed examination of the New Zealand example, where Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson is also Minister for Sport and Recreation, and a national strategy that links the wellbeing benefits of sport and physical activity to health and education policy.

Formal recommendations will be made in a subsequent report by the committee but Lord Willis says that the Government must now grasp the opportunity post-Covid to “rewrite the book” on the nation’s approach to recreational sport.

The wider backdrop is the apparent correlation between those nations like Britain, who have among the highest levels of obesity in the world and also particularly high death rates during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Unless this is a central pillar of Government policy, which is probably Cabinet Office led, which coordinates all the different various departments in a single objective — making this the healthiest, the fittest and most mentally alert nation on earth — we will have missed a trick,” Lord Willis told Telegraph Sport.

“We know active kids are more likely to be healthy, more likely to be mentally alert, more likely to have good social skills. That’s good for everything from our health system to our economy. When you look at it like this you suddenly see children’s sport and physical activity in a very different light.

“We are one of most obese nations on earth and, as we know with Covid, obesity comes with a big cost. For the Government to say, ‘We are going to turn this on its head, we will aim to be the fittest and most active nation on earth’ would not only be a vote winner but come with huge benefits. Why would you not want to?”

Asked if that would mean making it a cabinet position, Lord Willis said: “I definitely think it should. I am attracted by the New Zealand model, with a central plan for sport, recreation and active lifestyles. You can’t have a health and education policy unless it goes back to active lives. The idea of coordinating things at least at cabinet level seems to me to be a no-brainer.

“The thing that will get youngsters on track more than anything else is get them physically and mentally fit. Youngsters will have suffered more than we imagine — we have to get them out and active again.”

Lord Willis’s remarks follow the revelation in the latest diaries of Alastair Campbell, the former Labour Government spokesman, who says that David Cameron turned down the suggestion that sport and Olympic legacy become a cabinet position. Campbell says that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood pressed the then Prime Minister to use the legacy of the Olympics for a “wholesale change in the way we view sport and use it across a whole range of Government responsibilities” including health and education. Campbell believes that it was “a huge missed opportunity” and the ‘inspire a generation’ Olympic mantra became a broken promise.

Lord Willis agreed that “virtually nothing had happened” on the back of the £9m that was spent on the Olympics and the aim of becoming the most active nation in the world. Utilising facilities inside schools and universities, said Lord Willis, would be critical to delivering on the strategy.

“Roughly half of all the grass pitches and three-quarters of all sports hall in England are on school sites,” said Willis. “It’s staggering. And yet one of the biggest complaints we are having is getting access to those facilities, which are largely paid for out of the public purse.”

The return of children’s sport has also coincided with new research, commissioned by the Youth Sports Trust, showing that the first priority for parents just now is the physical and mental wellbeing of their children rather than academic attainment.

It also shows the many parents are unaware of the recommendation by chief medical officer Chris Whitty that children should be active for an average of at least an hour every day.

The YouGov poll found that around two-thirds of parents believe that the wellbeing of their children is more important than their academic attainment and have said that the pandemic, lockdown and changes to schooling have worsened their child’s wellbeing. More than 80 per cent of parents also believe that their children’s wellbeing is likely to be negatively affected by cuts to PE, sport and break time in schools.

“I would love this [parliamentary] inquiry to lead to a recommendation that Government establish a long term cross-departmental strategy to make our children the happiest and healthiest in the world,” said Ali Oliver, the chief executive of the Youth Sports Trust. “I think that would bring with it a courageous and bold ambition around wellbeing and a measure of wellbeing. 

“Physical education is sadly in decline right at the time when I think we probably all believe its contribution could be hugely significant to the issues facing young people from a wellbeing perspective.

“It feels right now where we’re on the verge of a brilliant moment for physical education, where it could be repositioned in a way that delivers on well-being, personal development, character, all the things that we know as a nation we’re going to need for this generation.”

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