Last weekend, the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel shone slightly brighter as the Prime Minister allowed more businesses in England to reopen in a Covid-secure way. Saturday, July 4 – dubbed “Super Saturday” – was the Independence Day the country had been waiting for: a taste of liberty after varying degrees of lockdown. A list that included effective ‘air corridors’ had been published, enabling summer holidays abroad, social distancing was reduced to one metre-plus, pubs poured pints and hairdressers fashioned the latest post-corona barnets.
Major sections of the hospitality and leisure industries reopened in what was the biggest return to freedom since the country went into full-scale lockdown on March 23. For many hotels across England this was excellent news, until the PM’s address on June 23 when he said: “‘Close proximity’ venues such as nightclubs, soft-play areas, indoor gyms, swimming pools, water parks, bowling alleys and spas will need to remain closed for now.”
The government’s decision to keep spa and wellness facilities closed was a further blow for the industry and felt like a “kick in the stomach” for experts such as Abi Selby, founder of Spabreaks.com and board member for the UK Spa Association (UKSA), who heard the bad news the day those infamous images of crowds on Bournemouth beach surfaced.
There was little explanation from the government other than its lack of confidence in (the rest of) the sector’s ability to operate in a Covid-secure way (despite the World Health Organisation stating that indoor swimming pools are safe and other countries opening spa services, facilities, and gyms).
I spoke to Helena Grzesk, general manager of UKSA, who told me there was no reason to think spas would not reopen on July 4 because the guidelines covering hairdressers came out at the same time. She argued safe hygiene practices are operated in spas, gyms and nail salons to the standards to which now-open hairdressers, podiatrists and chiropractors, also “close proximity venues”, operate.
“It’s great to see the hair industry getting back to work, it can only put us in good stead really,” she said. “But even if we take away that element there are so many different sectors now back to work who really are so mirrored in parallel to what we do. I think that’s where it’s been a struggle.
“It just seemed like a senseless decision and I don’t think it was backed with any fact other than a bit of a ‘let’s split it and do hair and beauty’. I don’t think there’s any bigger decision beyond that.”
There are more than 900 spa and wellness businesses in the UK, which generate £2.1 billion and employ 45,000 people. According to the UKSA, a third of spas and spa hotels face closure unless they are allowed to reopen this month. This will have a significant impact on hotels who rely on spa and leisure guests to book rooms.
Selby told me that Spabreaks.com has had to pivot from selling spa trips to room-only packages. Pre-Covid they were sending 7,000 people a week to spas (they work with 700 across the UK) and now 80 hotels can only offer accommodation. “People are desperate to come on to the site but they can’t book anything because there’s nothing to book,” she said. “We’ve had to open up a whole new area of the site, Simply Escape, for hotel stays so we can continue to support the hotels while they’re waiting for their spas to reopen.”
As I write this, I can hear my neighbour, who is a personal trainer, holding some sort of online fitness class in the flat next door. He’s shouting words of encouragement while the glasses in my kitchen ring every time he jumps. Two other neighbours – from the flats below – are banging on the door complaining.
With gyms and spas closed, people have had to be creative with how they manage their mental health and wellbeing. I myself have completed the Couch to 5k plan – along with more than 858,000 people who downloaded the app between March and the end of June – but my fiance is climbing the walls to get back to his fitness centre.
Grzesk argues that spas and fitness centres are important for people’s wellbeing. “People have been locked away now with little contact […] people have been through a lot, no one I’ve spoken to during this time has not had difficult days, has not shed a tear, has not experienced frustration or upset.
“The government has chosen to leave all the facilities around [England] that could potentially support [people with] that closed until the very end.
“They’ve chosen to open restaurants and takeaways and pubs first, and I can’t begin to reason or make logic around that decision.”
She puts this down to a lack of understanding about the sector, admonishing the view that it’s seen as “pink and fluffy and superficial” and that all they do is “paint nails”. “It actually runs so much deeper,” she said. “And I’ve found that really frustrating through this process, that lack of genuine understanding of the benefits. It’s not just about the physical appearance, it’s so much deeper than that.”
UKSA, a not-for-profit trade association that champions UK health, social and economic wellness and wellbeing, sent a letter to the Prime Minister lobbying the government to reopen the rest of the beauty and wellness sector in the UK. At the moment there is no fixed date other than “a few weeks”.
If it’s not soon, I shall legally board a plane to Mallorca. I shall book a room at Hotel Fontsanta, splash about for a bit in the large thermal pool, decompress in the steam room, book a massage of some sort, and stay in a terrace suite designed by Antoni Esteva. Then I shall jump back on a plane to the UK as if it was the most normal thing in the world, save for a pocketful of face masks and some hand-san. But I’d really rather not for the sake of a few moments of peace and quiet – I’d rather just stay here and use the spa down the road.