The writer is shadow sport minister and Labour MP for Wirral South
At the heart of the government’s approach to Covid-19 is an egregious mistake. The belief that you have to make a trade-off between health and wealth has been a significant flaw in the UK’s handling of the coronavirus crisis — and it perhaps explains why wellbeing and fitness have not been higher up the agenda.
The economy is in dire straits — the UK’s gross domestic product is 24.5 per cent below the level of February 2020. But the source of this crisis is not economic: it is the need to take whatever measures are necessary to save lives. Some argue that the economic imperative (re-opening the economy) and the health imperative (to keep infections low) oppose each other, so ministers must choose. Some go so far as to urge an end to health protection measures, citing the need to protect our economic future.
Both of these views are clearly wrong. You cannot have a strong economy without a well-functioning labour market, a point that Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, made in his analysis of our chances for economic recovery. Similarly, if people are not safe and well, they find it difficult to work. This truth is extremely obvious in the context of a global pandemic. And it is why measures such as track and trace are so important — it’s not just people’s health that will suffer if the government doesn’t get this right.
Take the decision to prioritise getting us back drinking in pubs and eating out before getting us back into fitness facilities. When you’re opening bars and fast-food restaurants before gyms and swimming pools, physical activity is not at the heart of your plan for recovery. As well as the relative safety of many sports — particularly outside, and where precaution on contact can be taken — it is worrying that the health benefits of getting people active do not seem to have figured in the calculations.
This could well be storing up problems for our future. The latest Sport England data show 25 per cent of those on lower incomes are not doing any physical activity in their week at all, compared to 14 per cent for their wealthier counterparts. That poorer people don’t have time for a run or to cycle shouldn’t surprise us. But the rate at which that activity gap has widened since the start of lockdown — by 5 percentage points — is cause for concern. And it suggests we are not learning the lessons of a public health crisis quickly enough.
What’s more, we had health problems in our labour market even before this crisis. So we know that — economically speaking — our nation needs a plan to be healthier that succeeds long after Boris Johnson’s press-ups for the papers are forgotten.
Covid-19’s effects are not doled out equally, just as not everyone has an equal chance of a healthy life in normal circumstances. With socio-economic factors being big indicators of people’s health outcomes, economic policy must address these inequalities, and create a virtuous circle between the nation’s physical, mental and economic health.
The government has been bold enough to put the nation’s wages on their books — is it so much to ask that policies address our unequal, overstretched labour market, which does not allow people time to take care of themselves? Good individual physical and mental health — and good public health — is good for our country’s bottom line and it is time we recognised it.
We need economic policies that maintain flexibility for workers and ensure that employers continue to recognise the benefits that lockdown’s stipulated one hour’s exercise a day brought — our working culture should make sure this remains an important part of the day.
Without embedding long-term change in this way, our economy will only retain its weakness and the UK’s other crisis — of productivity — will not improve.
Lack of access to sport and physical activity is an economic issue. Labour market changes need to go hand in hand with encouraging more people to get involved in grassroots sports. This is how we can build a fitter nation for relatively little cost.
The IMF has warned the global recession will be much worse than the 2008 crash. When the flaws in our financial system were exposed then, the Labour government wasn’t afraid to pull the necessary levers. The difference now is that we are dealing with a virus. We do not know how long it will last or what might come next. The current government must act quickly and decisively to address these long-term and well-known problems, to make sure both our population and our economy are fit and healthy.