One Year of Covid-19: The Remarkable Support From Charities And Social Enterprises Across Public Leisure And Culture

Published on: March 23rd 2021

As today marks a National Day of Reflection on the anniversary of the Covid-19 lockdown beginning in the United Kingdom, Community Leisure UK looks back on the past year and its members’ response to this life-changing pandemic. 

Charities and social enterprises managing public leisure and culture have, like so many businesses, been severely impacted by the lockdown and Covid-19 restrictions. Yet, despite these unprecedented challenges and forced closure of venues, Community Leisure UK members have demonstrated their incredible resilience and commitment to supporting the health and well-being of their communities. 

This has involved supporting the local and national Covid response and vaccine rollout programme, and recognising the disproportionate impact of the lockdown on vulnerable groups and continuing to deliver services to enable social connectedness and maintain mobility, strength and balance.

Supporting local and national Covid-19 responses

At the start of the pandemic, Aura Leisure & Libraries in north Wales offered their main venue, Deeside Leisure Centre, to be used as one of the nation’s emergency field hospitals. The centre was repurposed in April 2020 and is currently still being used as a Covid-19 Ward. Since then, the majority of our members have repurposed community centres, libraries, and sport halls, amongst other buildings, to facilitate community testing and the vaccination roll-out.

In the west of Scotland, Live Argyll’s buildings have been used as vaccination centres, NHS additional storage facilities, and as army and ambulance service welfare facilities during weekly Covid testing programmes. Around 45% of Live Argyll’s workforce have volunteered during the pandemic either through the emergency response programme led via the Council/Third Sector Interface supporting communities or through their Education Hubs.

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Pictured: A community centre operated by Live Argyll being used as a local vaccination site. 

All Community Leisure UK members have built on their partnerships with Local Authorities, Health Boards and the NHS to support the local Covid-19 response. Active Luton provide a great example of this partnership where their staff teams were trained to form flexible testing teams, visiting workplaces and other locations across Luton to undertake mass testing in situ.

Yet support also came in more indirect forms, for example Inverclyde Leisure’s donation of gym equipment to local hospitals to allow key workers to keep physically active and maintain a clear state of mind, or Leisure Focus’ creation of videos for local businesses to use to help promote Covid testing.

Community Leisure UK members further took an active role in coordinating local Covid-19 responses, such as Pendle Leisure Trust staff, who helped over 2,000 vulnerable residents in the first few months of the Coronavirus outbreak. A team of furloughed staff volunteered seven days a week in the Pendle Community Support Hub, which was set up to co-ordinate support for the borough’s most vulnerable and shielding residents. Since then, the team has made over 10,000 calls to check on the borough’s vulnerable individuals on behalf of Pendle Council and the NHS – and continues to do so. 

Supporting communities

Support for local communities is at the heart of our members’ work and purpose. Falkirk Community Trust, through the Active Schools, Sports Development, Arts and Library teams, helped to provide activities to children of front-line workers throughout the 2020 Easter holidays. In addition to supporting local schools, the Library Services managed by Falkirk Community Trust expanded their online offer of e-books, e-audiobooks and e-magazines to meet the increased demand during lockdown. 

Charities and social enterprises have found different ways of connecting with and supporting their communities during the lockdowns. For example, LiveWire’s Lifestyles Team in Warrington telephoned and checked in with over 500 residents a week. The team’s effort directly addressed challenges around social isolation and mental wellbeing and provided support for those residents most at risk.

Supporting food distribution and tackling holiday hunger

Efforts were also made to combat holiday hunger. One example comes from Abbeycroft Leisure who, in partnership with Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils, further developed its December ‘Festive Food’ initiative to support families in need during the 2021 February half term. 160 food parcels, containing ingredients for five meals for a family of four, were distributed throughout the districts during half-term. The box also included recipe cards and links to online cooking tutorials, to help families prepare filling, tasty, and healthy meals. 

Our members also provided ongoing support with food distribution and support. For example, Your Leisure Kent LTD have been working with its local authority in helping connect resources where they are most needed. Through their collaboration with Age UK, they identified that the greatest need was for volunteers to help with shopping for and delivery of food to the most vulnerable in their communities. Furloughed Your Leisure staff have been proudly working with Age UK to provide that much needed help. However, the Your Leisure staff’s initiative and support did not end there as they identified other ways to help. This included producing a home exercise booklet to pass out with the food deliveries to people who did not have online access to support their wellbeing.

Supporting people to stay physically active

In a similar vein, to support people’s physical activity and wellbeing, Tees Active’s online streaming service has provided free access to Stockton-on-Tees Council employees in an effort to encourage individuals to be more active and support the health and wellbeing of homeworkers. Over 200 Council employees registered for the service in the first two weeks, demonstrating a huge appetite for keeping active during lockdown. Tees Active’s online platform has further enabled the return of the much-needed GP referral scheme, and has supported weight loss and lifestyle programmes to local residents during the COVID pandemic.

In addition to online offers, other ways to stay active were also encouraged. Sport Aberdeen loaned exercise equipment to as many customers as possible to support them to stay active during lockdown. Over 80 body pump kits, 100 steps, 700kg of dumbbells, kettlebells and slam balls were among the items loaned out and delivered direct to customers doors, in line with social distancing guidelines. Natalie Newlands, a regular at Sport Aberdeen’s Get active @ Jesmond gym, commented: 

“I would like to say a massive thank you to everyone at Sport Aberdeen for supporting the community and helping us all to stay active in this challenging time. I am so grateful for the loan of this equipment, this will make a huge difference to keeping me healthy and motivate me on my workouts every day! 

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Pictured: Sport Aberdeen staff delivering loaned equipment to customers during lockdown. 

Our members continued their support for people with long-term health conditions and additional needs by going into the community during the pandemic. KA Leisure, for example, continued their falls prevention programme on people’s doorsteps. This programme started in November as some people stopped engaging in online services or had been identified during a telephone support call that they had fallen or were at risk of falling. When identifying people who had had a fall, the team saw they were the same people who had dropped off online services. The KA Leisure team now have identified people who they are doing regular door stops with.   It begins with a telephone consultation, basic medical history and some basic falls screening questions to assess the need for the doorstep visit.  A doorstep falls assessment is completed then they are talked through functional strength and balance exercises and given an exercise programme to follow at home. 

Other ways to remain active locally without staying connected online were also encouraged. Live Active Leisure, for example, invited Perth and Kinross Residents to travel the world right from their doorstep when outside leisure activities were permitted again in Scotland. The challenge was free to take part in and simply asked people to record their walking, running or cycling distances on the Live Active Leisure website. Kelly Parker, Marketing & Communications Manager for Live Active Leisure commented:

“We know from years of experience that staying active is more rewarding when you have a goal to work towards […] We wanted to create a community goal that we could all work towards; our customers, our team, people who are new to fitness, the customers of other fitness providers – everyone is welcome to join us as we aim to collectively travel as many of the 24,901 miles around the world as we can!” 

Community Leisure UK members actively encouraged communities to go outdoors and make use of their local parks and green spaces, as these are often also managed by charities and social enterprises for the benefit of their communities. Link4Life, for example, developed an interactive mobile app that has helped Rochdale residents discover the great outdoors as part of a new trail on the Love Exploring app at Hollingworth Lake and Country Park. They launched new walking routes on the free Love Exploring app to support members of the local community to stay active and healthy. The route is based around Hollingworth Lake and Country Park in Littleborough and visitors of all ages can download the free app to discover self-guided walks, learn more about the places they’re visiting, enjoy digital treasure hunts and even use augmented reality to bring some added excitement to the route.

Supporting mental health and wellbeing

In addition to staying physically active, support for mental health and wellbeing was also encouraged through arts and culture. During the Christmas period, Embassy Theatre, Skegness and Magna Vitae Productions streamed a pre-recorded pantomime into local primary schools. An online recording (originally intended for archiving) of the 2019 pantomime adventure “Jack and the Beanstalk” was streamed into classrooms across the county to spread a little festive joy for students and teachers to remember their visit to the Embassy Theatre. This was accompanied by a range of added value assets for use in the classroom, including exclusive creative team videos and a copy of the full script to read along with, song-book, and jokes to try out in class. Where classes were required to isolate and be absent from school on the day they were due to join in, the classroom panto streaming link was made available to view from home to ensure no-part of the school missed out.

Supporting digital inclusion

Our members are aware that not everyone in their communities is able to connect with them digitally. This is why members have actively checked in with their community during lockdown, and why they are working closely with the community on increasing digital access. One such project is Halo Leisure’s Digital Inclusion Project which provides devices, internet access and training to their most vulnerable customers. This supports vulnerable people, including those with complex health conditions and their carers, to stay physically active and connected by providing online opportunities to exercise and socialise. 

Celebrating Community Heroes

Dozens of unsuspecting unpaid carers from across the county borough of Bridgend in Wales received a surprise delivery of Christmas cheer when they answered their doorbells in December. They were greeted with a socially-distanced dance from the Kitsch n Sync Collective as a ‘thank you’ for their tireless, and often unrecognised work, particularly throughout the pandemic.

The visits were organised by Awen Cultural Trust and Bridgend Carers Centre, and funded by Arts Council of Wales, as a way of spreading some festive joy to unpaid carers whose lives have become even more isolated as a result of coronavirus, and to show their role within their local communities does not go unrecognised. Every carer was handed a special message of thanks, which triggered tears of emotion from all involved.

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Pictured: Dancers from the Kitsch n Sync Collective in front of the Grand Pavillion.

While public leisure and culture venues have mostly been closed in the past year due to lockdowns and ongoing restrictions, when they did open these charities and social enterprises recognised and celebrated their community.

This was demonstrated by Oldham Community Leisure in September 2020, when Violet Walpole, who turned 93 in September, was surprised during her weekly line dancing class by the team at Oldham Community Leisure (OCL) with celebratory cupcakes and flowers. The super-fit granny, who lives in Middleton, catches two buses to the leisure centre, which takes about an hour, and has been attending the line dancing classes at OCL for around six years.

Sharing stories and looking ahead

In recognition of the challenging year that we have all had, Moseley Road Baths – an Edwardian heritage pool – have started the Threading Tales Together project. The project seeks to capture the stories of those individuals who have been shielding, their families, friends and volunteers who have supported them. All individual projects will be woven together through different creative mediums, such as textiles, photography and hip hop, and will then form an exhibition with wings that will begin at Moseley Road Baths but play host in other locations across the Hall Green Constituency, including being part of Moseley Festival in July.

After a long and difficult year, we can conclude that the strong community connections as well as the collaboration between our members, Local Authorities and health partners are what makes the charity and social enterprise model for public leisure and culture so resilient and successful. 

For more stories on charitable trusts’ work during the pandemic, please visit Community Active – the online directory for charitable trusts across the UK: 

Community Leisure UK is the trade association representing registered charities or societies delivering public leisure, sport and/or culture services for communities across the UK. These charities provide physical activity, cultural engagement and social opportunities and are significant partners within their local communities. We have a total of 110 members, operating over 3 700 facilities across England, Scotland and Wales, with a total of over 100 000 staff and over 17 000 volunteers.

While this article focuses on the positive impact our members have made on their communities during a pandemic, we would like to remind readers that unprecedented challenges still remain. Charities and social enterprises will need further support if they are to survive this crisis. For more information, please have a look at Community Leisure UK’s latest insight report on the impact of Covid-19 on charitable trusts here.