As we came to the end of spring, around the country leisure centres, swimming pools, gyms, sports clubs and community centres were starting to think about reopening.
But there was lots of uncertainty and lots of questions.
Will we be able to reopen and when? What will the restrictions and rules be? What does a ‘covid-secure environment’ mean and what does it look like for my sport or venue? Will people want to come back if things look and feels different? And importantly, with different rules and social distancing, will my venue or activity be financially viable?
We, at Sport England, set up our Return to play (RTP) working group in May 2020 to focus on understanding the emerging issues for the reopening of community sport and activity, identify where support was needed and, crucially, get answers to the questions.
We also set out to support the sector to develop guidance for their own specific environments or sports and to help government produce guidance that was applicable to the grassroots sector.
The RTP ‘mailbox’ was also set up to capture questions, queries and information – and there were lots!
Coming from all angles, including local authorities, leisure operators, national governing bodies (NGBs), charities and community organisations. The questions weren’t just about what activity would look like but about the workforce, training and competition structures, travel to other areas, spectators, and sport taking place alongside other activities.
The RTP page was set up on our website and launched in June, becoming the hub for all our shared information, including the all-important FAQs and links to the latest government guidance which have been revised time and time again to reflect the changing, new situations and regulations which have emerged.
The hub quickly developed to include everything from guidance on legal risks and duties of care in returning to play, to hygiene guidance for facilities – and everything else in between.
How people felt
In August we carried out an RTP survey which, alongside our conversations with delivery partners, helped bring greater clarity to how people were feeling about getting back to activity.
The findings showed that, although many people were keen to get back to their activities in clubs or groups, they had some concerns:
- Hygiene, cleanliness of the activity or facility
- The impact of restrictions on their experience – a modified version of the activity might not work for everyone
- How well other participants stick to the rules around hygiene and social distancing.
Those feeling most anxious about returning to activity, unsurprisingly, were people with long-term health conditions or a disability, women and older people.
One of the key characteristics of organisations getting back up and running successfully, in re-assuring participants and in building their confidence, has been good communication.
Here’s how people did it:
- Telling and showing customers what measures had been put in place before they came back.
- Outlining to them what to expect when they arrived for activities and explaining the rules.
- Reminding them, on a regular basis, in a friendly way.
There was lots of uncertainty and lots of questions
We’ve seen so many organisations do this well over the last few months as they work to rebuild their activities, and our sister website Club Matters has produced a series of videos with Peterborough Town Sport Club to show how they’ve done it.
Learning from experience
A return to play after the first lockdown felt like a huge challenge for everyone.
The initial development of the ‘frameworks’ for different types of activities to be ‘covid-secure’ e.g. outdoor team sports, understanding how leisure centres, gyms and swimming pools could operate and keep everyone safe. Then the practical understanding and implementation of that by the volunteers and paid staff who make it happen on a daily basis.
The second return to play after the national restrictions in November was more straightforward in some ways as everyone had got to grips (to an extent) with all the regulations but we now had the tiered structure which added a layer of complexity.
It’s not over yet
The emergence of tier 4 brings the latest review of our RTP FAQs and another check through the guidance and resources to make sure everything is still accurate, relevant and helpful.
We recognise that return to play hasn’t happened for everyone yet and that there are still organisations who are struggling to work out how they go forwards in these challenging times.
And there’ll be more to think about in the New Year as we continue to develop our understanding of how clubs, community groups, leisure providers and event deliverers are coping, adapting and planning to get back to activity.