May 4th 2020

At Leisure Leagues, since the outbreak of Cornonavirus began to hit this country particularly hard in the middle of March, we have done everything we can to comply with the Government guidelines and regulations on first social distancing and then lockdown.

We ran leagues when we were able – in fact, the original advice was that people were encouraged to play football with “family and known friends”  – and when the schools were partially locked down (the idea of a full lockdown is a myth given that schools remain open for the “families of keyworkers” – and quite rightly so.) We ran where we were able, at Leisure Centres and private establishments, giving them vital income.

So, it was with huge distress that we looked at pictures that emerged this weekend, of businesses if not flouting the rules then certainly working to different ones than us, such as these from Billingsgate Market from a Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago.

We offer no comment on the people on the photographs, nor the traders who are making a living in these trying times, instead our question is more this:  if the lockdown is not going to be universally observed, then bluntly, what is the point?

Moreover, why are certain sectors being discriminated against, businesses closing and people being made redundant – all because they are doing the “right” thing and following the rules?

The Leisure Industry was decimated – almost overnight – and all of our leagues across the world have been shut down now for over a month, through no fault of our own, and, if we may say, without any real discussion as to whether it was the right thing to do.

Speaking to the New York Times last month Kelly Hills, a bioethicist and co-founder of the consulting firm Rogue Bioethics, said: “It feels like somebody is using a Magic 8-Ball to make these decisions. There is no consistency. There doesn’t even seem to be consistency in who’s making these decisions.”

And that lack of coherent narrative is the main issue here. On 12th March the Government announced that the football fixtures that weekend would be going ahead, as there was “no hard evidence” that gatherings would affect the spread of Covid-19 (you’ll remember that they allowed the Cheltenham Race Festival that week and Champions League football took place).

Then the following day, The Premier League and Football League called their games off in spite of that advice, but even this was a fudge – some non-league games were on. Leisure Leagues are unaffiliated and independent, of course, so we followed Whitehall edicts and we ran all our leagues, as the statutes said we not just could, but should.

Even in the following week we were encouraged to operate as normally as possible, and worked with all our hundreds of venues across the land individually, even though we were forced to close our Head Office and it wasn’t until the following week that the government closed Leisure Centres, schools and so on.

Overnight, they had forced hundreds of thousands of players to not play – whether they wanted to or not, and again without really thinking of the pro’s and cons. What of the benefits to fitness and health – both physical and mental – of sport? The government has recognised this, given that they are encouraging people to do an hour of exercise a day, so why deny people the opportunity of going to the gym, the Leisure Centre, and the like?

Instead, we are in some particularly strange halfway house. One where on the one hand, police are breaking up people walking in deserted beauty spots and sending them home, while on Thursday night’s, allowing hundreds to congregate on Westminster Bridge to clap the NHS – and as these pictures show, joining in too.

Local Government Minister, Robert Jenrick has announced a further £1.6bn aid package for councils across the land who are close to going bust. One of the reasons they are broke is that they have been forced to close, again, with the most minimal research.

People have accepted this new normality with very little fuss, which is to their great credit, but not every country has forced its populace behind closed doors in this way.

Take Sweden. As Bloomberg has reported this weekend: “Sweden has left its schools, gyms, cafes, bars and restaurants open throughout the spread of the pandemic. Instead, the government has urged citizens to act responsibly and follow social distancing guidelines.”

And who’s to say this hasn’t worked? As of Saturday 18th April Sweden had reported 1,540 deaths tied to Covid-19. To be clear, that’s more than in the rest of Scandinavia, but much less than in Italy, Spain and the U.K., both in absolute and relative terms. And their economy is in much better shape to bounce back, with their people in much better shape, generally.

At Leisure Leagues, we will reiterate the following: first, we will follow all guidelines as laid down by the Government, but that does not mean that we should do so unquestioningly. Second, we are forever grateful to the work of Emergency Services and other frontline workers, who are doing an incredible job in such awful circumstances.

That all being said, though, the latest reports are that the English Premier League want to resume games in the middle of June, as The Guardian reported: “Premier League clubs have discussed resuming the season on the weekend of 13-14th June.”

Crucially – and rightly – they plan to do this behind closed doors. Now, why should that not apply to us too? Maybe I am wrong, but I can’t remember many spectators at the side of the 3G pitch at the Leisure Centres watching as Hardly Athletic take on Old Heads FC, can you? And yet, the games for these players, for these communities, are just as vital as any other.

To be clear. Any death through Covid-19 is awful, and to be equally transparent, we will follow any rules that are set down. It is a shame that others – including the police – are doing the opposite, while we and our teams are punished in myriad ways.

Sport seems to have become a target in this. An easy one, perhaps, as Health Minister Matt Hancock has rounded on footballers over their wages, but not the billionaires who own the clubs, and it feels like even at grass roots level, the ordinary man who wants to enjoy his half an hour game is being punished.

At Leisure Leagues, our promise to you is that we will reopen, and we will run the best leagues in the world as soon as we are able to, but we fervently hope it is sooner rather than later, seeing as other sectors, as far as the evidence suggests, are carrying on as normal, and the lockdown is essentially being made a mockery of.

Sport needs a level playing field. Can it honestly be said to be getting one right now?

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