Faced with tens of thousands of deaths and the trauma inflicted on our health and care workers, like many of us I have found it hard to care about sport. So when Dominic Rabb said he wanted to “lift the spirits of the nation” with the return of Premier League football, it felt like distraction tactics from the Tories. You cannot just go home, put the football on and forget about what our country has been through. These things are too big. Too important.
That said, watching sport is much more than a distraction. It’s engrossing and emotional. The most dramatic moments of the sports we follow are not just about what happened in the match but about who we’re with and who we hugged. It’s part of our families, our communities and our identity. Sports clubs have shown just that by providing food, protective equipment and supporting their fans throughout the past few months.
Jurgen Klopp says sport may be the most important of all unimportant things. It has certainly felt very important on Merseyside in recent weeks as Liverpool won the Premier League. But the government’s focus on getting elite football on the telly whilst being slow to help people play it themselves show they haven’t got a strategy for the wider health impacts of lockdown – both mental and physical.
The government gave the green light to pubs and theme parks to reopen but had nothing to say about getting grassroots sports clubs up and running. Badminton, swimming and cricket clubs have been left waiting unable to plan how to get physical activity underway safely. The government has not built trust or confidence in the decisions they are taking. So bad is the cock-up, Boris Johnson’s own Telegraph newspaper has had to campaign to save club cricket in light of the Prime Minister’s remarks that a cricket ball is a “natural vector of disease”.
Without being open about the choices the government is making and the science behind them, it’s hard to understand why today I can play darts at my local, but my five-aside football league can’t reconvene.
There will be broader health impacts of the past few months. But people have enjoyed their hour’s exercise a day during lockdown. We must build on this momentum, especially as we know the risk is lower for outside activity. This is a Labour issue. The sports participation gap between those at the wealthier end of society and those with least is 20 percentage points, and it is growing as a result of Covid-19.
Behind the frustration expressed, even from the Tories’ natural supporters, and the mistakes the government have made, is a public health cause in need of champions. Sport can bring healthier outcomes and assist the NHS in keeping people well. It’s part of our life that brings happiness, a sense of identity and who we are. Labour can beat a new path for sport. And we must not be afraid to say: being a part of something matters. Most people want that feeling of togetherness – be that a team, a squad, a club or a country.