A gym owner and science student has raised concerns over the data used by the Welsh Government to justify keeping places for exercise shut.
Gyms across Wales have been closed for months due to the pandemic, and they won’t be re-opening before April 12 at the earliest.
Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford has been accused of making baseless claims about the spread of coronavirus in gyms as some owners stand on the brink of flouting the latest government guidelines. Several independent gym owners told WalesOnline on Friday that they were experiencing significant financial issues, with some considering opening their doors and “self-policing” if the closures continued much longer.
Now one gym owner in Cardiff has raised concerns over the evidence used to justify keeping gyms closed.
In January the Welsh Government Technical Advisory Group (TAG) published a paper that looked at the risks associated with indoor exercise facilities, including gyms, leisure centres and dance/exercise classes. You can see that paper here.
Ben Morris, who runs the Aspire Fitness gym in Canton, said the evidence needed “further scrutiny” and claimed the interpretation by TAG was “questionable”. He is coming to the end of his masters degree in health and exercise science, and has gone through the sources used by the TAG and raised a number of concerns through his own document.
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Ben said: “The evidence provided by the TAG is incomplete, misleading, and has not been fully scrutinised.”
He added: “When the incident rate is high you can’t really argue against it [gym closures in Wales], but the concern is that in the summer we were stopped from opening for a long time which seemed unjust really. Especially compared to other places. And you don’t need to explain the benefits of gyms, health and fitness which is pretty clear cut.
“And my concern is that the evidence they are using, and the evidence given to ministers, was a misrepresentation of the evidence. We just don’t think we need to be shut. We just want the proper information to be out there.”
It comes as a new Welsh study suggests that pubs and mixing in the home can all increase the risk of passing on the virus, but that gyms, leisure centres and restaurants do not.
In a report put together by Ben, he said there were a number of key issues:
Super spreader events
The TAG report highlights an informal database of super spreader events (SSE) as evidence behind the decision to close gyms. Ben said the TAG report claimed six of these events were associated with gyms. But he added that three of the six reported occurred at dance or spin studios and one case of the six was a duplicate entry.
The super spreader events cited took place across the world, from America to Japan. One incident was an outbreak of five cases in Japan in February, 2020 which did occur in a gym. In his report, Ben writes: “Is five cases a substantial SSE?”
Ben also highlighted that the same outbreak appeared twice in the informal database, an outbreak of 40 cases at a “fitness facility” in North Carolina, USA. The duplicated entry erroneously says it took place on November 18, 2021.
Of the 615 cases identified by the TAG report, more than half came from a “dance school” in Hong Kong with secondary transmission linked to bars and restaurants, he added.
Ben said: “This should not be compared with well maintained, well organised, socially distanced gyms adhering to UK health and safety rules and guidance, but accounts for over 50% of the cases used as evidence of the likelihood of SSEs in Welsh facilities. Furthermore, the database also highlights the 311 cases as ‘uncertain’ and therefore it is questionable if Welsh Government policy should be based on this evidence.”
The Welsh Government said that in relation to the Hong Kong example, that highlighted the risk of those who were infected and symptomatic or asymptomatic coming into contact with other people in settings and creating super-spreader events regardless of where they themselves were infected.
It added that the section in the TAG paper was caveated with “this is very likely an incomplete coverage of events but merely serves to illustrate the continued potential for SSE within indoor exercise facilities”.
A randomised trial in Norway
Another source cited by the TAG report is a random trial carried out in Norway. It found that out of 1,896 people allowed to use gyms, only one returned a positive test.
At the time of the study, the infection rate was very low, between 3.5 and 11 cases per 100,000 population, so Ben writes that it’s difficult to know if incidents would be higher with a higher infection rate.
He added: “This research strongly suggests that well-organised gyms following appropriate mitigation and control measures for the transmission of the virus provides relatively little chances of transmissions.”
The Welsh Government said all the Norway study found was that where the rates of Covid-19 in a community were very low, the risks of spread through gym use were also very low. They said this was because there was no “community reservoir” present to seed infections into the gym which could then be amplified in the gym.
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University finds ‘extremely’ low Covid-19 risk in gyms
In his report, Ben points to a study by Sheffield’s Hallam University which looked at more than 62 million fitness facility visits since September across Europe.
The study said only 487 positive cases were reported.
It adds: “‘The findings mitigate public health concerns about the safety of gyms and confirm that fitness clubs are safe environments with relatively low risk of Covid-19 infection. The research provides a strong argument for keeping the fitness and physical activity sector open during any future outbreaks of infectious diseases.”
The Welsh Government said the study was a single press release and did not provide source data.
See the full report here:
What else has the Welsh Government said?
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “The purpose of the Technical Advisory Group paper is to identify potential routes and risks of transmission, as well as any potential measures which can be taken to help reduce risks associated with activities in indoor exercise facilities – not just indoor gyms.
“It is not possible to pinpoint the exact time or space where infection occurs. Research studies, contact tracing and our growing understanding of risk are based on a probability calculation that includes proximity, duration, quantity of contact potential and a host of other details.
“Following the identification of the highly-infectious Kent variant, which is now the most dominant form of the virus in Wales, we must be more cautious as we relax restrictions to prevent a fresh surge of cases as people mix and gather. We keep all restrictions under constant review and we hope we can continue gradually relaxing restrictions, if the public health situation remains positive.”