Providers of outdoor education in the Lake District are baffled at the Government’s failure to identify a date on which they can reopen to users when it has done so for nightclubs.
They say they have made huge losses during the pandemic with little or no financial support other than the furlough scheme, with many having to use reserves earmarked for development or take out loans, and that some of the smaller privately run centres might not survive.
Tim Foster, head of the northern region of the Field Studies Council, who is based at the Blencathra Centre, near Threlkeld, said: “We rely on fee paying groups for our core business and although the furlough scheme has been helpful we have had to take out a large loan to continue operating.
“Everyone should note that there isn’t a clear date on when we can start to deliver outdoor learning either as day visits or as residentials.
“The visits ban remains in place and there isn’t a single line in the roadmap that we can point to that refers specifically to our situation.
“We can make a case to deliver what we do by comparing our activities with what is allowed under the roadmap and using guidance for education, hospitality and so on, but that isn’t quite the same thing.
“The ban is looking increasingly at odds with the rest of government messaging – that education is the top priority. If this is so then why do night clubs have an indicative date when outdoor learning does not!
“The visits ban needs to be lifted in time to allow providers to deliver the catch-up opportunities – including the specialist tuition that we offer and the chance of catch up holiday camps.”
The same call came from Nick Barrett, chief executive of the Hackthorpe-based Outward Bound Trust, which operates centres across the country including at Howtown and Watermillock which normally cater for about 9,000 young people a year, mostly in school groups.
The trust employs about 180 people in Cumbria, 90 per cent of whom have been furloughed since last March. Mr Barrett believes such facilities could open safely for visitors and residents, with social distancing and other measures in place — especially since the trust has ample experience of operating with safety as a priority.
He said: “The key issue is that we need to open for residential purposes.
“Our income is mostly from schools and similar groups paying for residential visits, and we also get about £4 million a year from supporters so that economic disadvantage is not a barrier to young people coming here. We take issues of safety extremely seriously – it is deep in our 80-year-old DNA – and I am confident we could operate in a COVID-secure way.
“How can the Government possibly contemplate opening nightclubs when ignoring outdoor education, which performs a really important service to society.”
Both Mr Foster and Mr Barrett praised the efforts of Cumbrian MPs Dr Neil Hudson and Tim Farron to get support from the Government for outdoor education providers, with Mr Foster saying: “Local MPs Neil Hudson and Tim Farron have been very supportive and their work alongside campaigning by individuals and sector representatives now needs turning into action.
“We should be part of the solution for young people, not a financial casualty of COVID-19.”