Government challenged to make United Kingdom the world’s most active country by 2030 - GETTY IMAGES
Government challenged to make United Kingdom the world’s most active country by 2030 – GETTY IMAGES

The Government has been challenged to make the United Kingdom the world’s most active country by 2030 as part of a new national plan to rebuild grass-roots sport following the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new parliamentary group has been formed, called the National Plan for Sport and Recreation Committee,  which includes Paralympic legend Baroness Grey-Thompson, West Ham United vice-chairman Baroness Brady and former sports minister Lord Moynihan among its members.

A special advisor to the committee is Dr Chris Mackintosh, who has completed the largest qualitative study of the Covid-19 impact on recreational sport and reveals the vast impact of lockdown measures which saw thousands of clubs and activities shut down.

Dr Mackintosh said that the pandemic had “shaped existing and future sport, exercise and community sport provision and participation in England probably in a way not seen since World War Two”.

The Telegraph launched its ‘Girls, Inspired’ campaign last year which was designed to tackle the gender gap among children in physical activity before its ‘Keep Kids Active in Lockdown’ campaign this year.

Lord Willis, who is chairing the National Plan committee, said that the Telegraph’s campaigning had “highlighted the particular challenges grass-roots sports clubs have faced during the Covid pandemic” and has urged people involved in recreational sport to now engage with his committee. “One of the themes of our inquiry will be how community sport and recreation can rebound from the crisis and play a key role in supporting more people to live more active lifestyles,” he said.

Published by Manchester Metropolitan University, and produced with Active Partnerships across Cheshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Merseyside and Greater Manchester, Dr Mackintosh’s research focussed on particularly socially deprived areas and parts of the country among the hardest hit by Covid-19. 

As well as the impacts on mental and physical health, he also uncovered stories of extraordinary adaptability, an almost “war-time” spirit of volunteering and a movement away from traditional sports to activities like park-running, cycling and walking. 

His extensive interviews, however, also reveal a “digital poverty” in how swathes of people were unable to access online exercise and information. In one case, what would usually be an activity for 500 children, only retained between 150 and 200 due to the digital gap. “We should not forget that privilege is inbuilt into our sport system, if transport, joining fees and equipment were the ‘old money’ luxuries of participation, then maybe digital technology is the latest platform of exclusion,” said one respondent. 

One of the community youth football groups in Lancashire reported how around 10 per cent of children had stopped playing even when matches and training resumed. “I’ve lost about a dozen in that (12-16) age group who don’t even connect with us,” said the group’s coach. “When I speak to their parents they’re like, ‘He won’t come over. He’s lost hope’.” The coach also reported a loss of fitness among a significant number of children. Other respondents reported a loss of self-esteem, identity, connection and an increased short temper when sport was so abruptly stopped.

“The social function of community and grass-roots sports is one of the main reasons people take part, so removing this from people’s life is what people have found ­hardest,” said Dr Mackintosh.

“This serves as a stark reminder that we must take action to improve the physical and mental health of the country – particularly our young people, who seem to have been hit the hardest.”

According to analysis from Sport England, the proportion of adults in England engaging in 150 minutes or more of physical activity each week – the level recommended by the Chief Medical Officer – fell during the first lockdown from mid-March to mid-May by 7.1 per cent. And, since the pandemic began, the proportion of adults reporting they had done 30 minutes or more of physical activity across five or more days per week has fallen to 24 per cent.

Numerous leisure facilities, including more than 200 swimming pools, have stayed shut but, with such a clear correlation having been drawn between health and potential Covid outcomes, there is also a clear sense that a once in a generation chance now exists.

Huw Edwards, the chief executive of ukactive, has suggested that the Government seizes the moment with the leisure sector’s version of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, which would both incentivise physical activity and help the sector financially

“Before the pandemic, there were also green shoots of success around the nation’s overall activity levels,” said Edwards.

“What I think is needed now is a brand new vision and strategy. Now is the chance to set a bolder vision to make ourselves the most active nation in the world.”

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