Michael Gove sorry for rules muddle amid fury over grassroots sport closures

3 November 2020, 21:16 | Updated: 3 November 2020, 21:27

Michael Gove offered hope grassroots sports would be allowed - only to be dashed
Michael Gove offered hope grassroots sports would be allowed - only to be dashed. Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

Michael Gove has apologised for wrongly suggesting people could play singles tennis or golf in pairs during England’s second national lockdown, as a backlash mounts over the closure of grassroots sport and gyms.

Downing Street has insisted it will not change direction over the decision to close golf courses, tennis clubs, gyms, leisure facilities and grassroots outdoor sport for a month when the shutdown begins on Thursday.

This is despite Olympians and sports stars condemning the rules - especially the banning of youth outdoor sports outside of school - as “nonsensical”, “crazy” and lacking in scientific evidence.

The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has admitted he is not aware of any instance where infection had spread between children playing football outdoors – but said it was for policymakers to decide what is and is not allowed.

During an online question and answer session with his constituents on Monday, Mr Gove sparked confusion when he suggested people would “probably be able to continue to play singles tennis”.

The Cabinet Office minister also said “we are looking at” allowing people to play golf with one other person, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson so resisting pressure from Tory backbenchers to do so.

On Tuesday morning Mr Gove apologised, tweeting: “My apologies, I got this wrong. Outdoor leisure facilities including tennis courts and golf courses will be closed from Thursday."

Read more: Gyms and sport stars demand PM U-turn on 'devastating' lockdown closures

Read more: Oxford scientist says Government used 'incorrect graph to justify lockdown'

It comes amid a growing backlash over gyms, grassroots outdoor sport and swimming pools closing despite low Covid transmission rates.

The latest Public Health England surveillance report, based on Test and Trace data, from the week to 25 October, shows just 2.8 per cent of people with coronavirus referred for contact tracing had been to the gym. Aggregated data shows just 0.99 cases per 100,000 visits to gyms since they reopened in July.

Baroness Tani Grey-Thompson, chair of UK Active, called for gyms and leisure facilities to be treated as “essential services”, while football pundit Robbie Savage called the closure of youth sport, including non-professional football outside the FA Cup, “nonsensical”.

The former midfielder, now a youth coach, said there were inconsistencies in allowing children to mix during school but not while playing grassroots sports at the weekend. “These kids, they need a mental and physical activity to stimulate themselves on a weekend, it’s ridiculous,” he said.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden confirmed that grassroots sports outside of school would be “paused” during England’s second lockdown, set to finish on 2 December, “to reduce the transmission risk from households mixing”. Elite sport can continue.

Meanwhile, the UK’s largest gym chain PureGym warned the country would have to “live with the consequences” on physical and mental health. Some gym owners have vowed to stay open and risk fines.