Industry continues to challenge government stance on closures and financial support


Child playing with parent

The Association of Indoor Play (AIP) continues to lobby government for greater support, understanding and financial assistance for its members and the sector as a whole.

During the second lockdown, virtual meetings were held with Ben Dean of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), said AIP chair Janice Dunphy. “We’ve asked for more funding, more assistance and for a clear explanation as to why soft-play centres were to be considered as an automatic closure in tier 3 in the new system, unlike what we would view as similar types of business that are often less COVID-safe,” she told us. “More than 50% of our members are in tier 3, but even in the other tiers, they face greater restrictions than any other sector even though it has been proven and stated by Professor Van Tam that children under 11 are not high risk either from a transmission or impact point of view. And if you’re in a tier 2 area and surrounded by tier 3 areas, it’s no less difficult to get customers through your doors.

“We’re pushing hard to get greater understanding and recognition of the challenges we are facing as an industry and I think we are gradually getting through,” she added.

Parliamentary address

Perhaps some proof that ministers are beginning to take on board what the industry is telling them came in a plea delivered to Parliament by David Simmonds CBE, Member of Parliament for the Greater London constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner. He too asked the government to pay greater attention to the plight of soft-play settings around the country.

During a two-minute address to fellow MPs in November, he relayed the details of a previous discussion with ministers in which he had praised all children’s services for their contribution to the economy, to society and to the wellbeing of the nation’s children and their parents. Simmonds paid tribute to “those in the children’s sector who have ensured that nurseries, schools and childcare settings have remained open so that working parents can continue doing their jobs”.

He raised particular concern, however, about the plight of indoor-play operators in his own constituency. His address highlighted “the challenges facing businesses such as Jungle Monkeyz (Pinner) and Jurassic Perk (Ruislip) in the constituency and many other soft-play centres and venues for children across the country, which at the moment remain closed.

“These businesses’ activities play an important part in boosting the wellbeing of working parents and children and it is vital that they are supported at this time,” he said.

Recognising that there remains a high demand for the soft-play industry, as and when customers are allowed to avail themselves of the facilities, Simmonds continued: “When ministers look at the financial support provided to all kinds of businesses, may I ask them to recognise how the wellbeing of working parents and children is supported by those businesses’ activities and that they seek to ensure that an appropriate degree of priority is given to them in the financial measures available in local areas?”

On the wider picture, Simmonds offered a philosophical outlook, but suggested a more transparent approach from government; one which would be welcomed by many indoor-play operators, who feel they have been left in the dark when decisions were made to shut their businesses down for months on end: “We should treat that as an urgent task, because people bear these measures with patience and fortitude – I think when history looks back on this time we will regard them as proportionate – but none the less we need to ensure that they feel willing to comply with them,” he said. 

Simmonds had talked directly to his constituents before relaying these views to the House and Janice believes industry lobbying, by AIP, BALPPA and individual operators, is having an effect. “They are starting to listen to us and others about the benefits of indoor play to children. But we still have a lot of work to do. DCMS looked at the physical exercise side of indoor play and considered whether we could be in the same band as adult gyms, for example, but they decided that there is an attraction element to what we do that you don’t have in gyms. That might be true in some of the bigger centres, which they have visited, but not for everyone. We are all play gyms to a large extent, but so far we are suffering with the classification we’ve been given.”

Child playing

Open letter

As England prepared to come out of lockdown and entered into the three-tier system, AIP stepped up its attempts to force a change in thinking with an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, outlining its suggestions on the way forward. Here it is in full:


27 November 2020

Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing to you today as Chair of the Association of Indoor Play to ask for your help with the indoor play industry. During the first lockdown earlier in the year, the indoor play industry was one of the first industries to go into lockdown and one of the last to emerge from restrictions.

Children’s Gyms

Indoor play centres are children’s equivalent of adult gyms, but our industry has not been allowed to re-open in Tier 3 areas, despite the low transmission rate for under 12s and the fact that children do not generally seem to suffer badly from COVID-19.

This is at a time when the UK is currently facing a childhood obesity epidemic, with almost 1 in 5 children leaving primary school obese and less than a third of children achieving recommended activity levels before the pandemic even hit.

The impact of lockdown on children’s mental health currently and their future prospects cannot be underestimated. As you will be aware, there are increasing calls to understand the long-term impacts of this lockdown on the wellbeing of children and young people during the COVID-19 pandemic. This impact from initial studies is expected to be most prevalent in low income or socially deprived households. Our centres across the UK attract a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and are considered a lifeline by many parents, especially those with SEND children.

We are asking you to reconsider your decision to keep indoor play closed in Tier 3 areas. Children have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 as they struggle to comprehend and understand the enormity of the pandemic; they do not deserve to suffer any more. They need the right to play and exercise just as much as adults, if not even more based on the strong, clear link between childhood and adult obesity.

It is illogical and punitive that adults are allowed to exercise indoors whilst children may not, especially when there have been zero confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks in indoor play settings and that the R rate did not increase as a result of indoor play reopening.

Surviving the Pandemic

We are grateful for the extension to the furlough scheme, which our industry has relied upon to keep many of the 30,000 staff in jobs. However, the indoor play industry needs more support to be able to continue operating as a business and to cover its other fixed costs through the pandemic and into the future post-pandemic world. In particular:

  • The business rates holiday should be extended until March 2022 to recognise that businesses are trading at significantly reduced capacities and that the effects of the pandemic on restrictions and consumer confidence will likely continue into the 2021/22 tax year.
  • The grants of up to £3,000 for the closed businesses are not sufficient to even cover rent for a lot of operators and are not sufficient to cover fixed costs. As our industry typically occupies expensive buildings, either on retail parks or large industrial buildings, more targeted grant support is needed. We are therefore asking for additional grants to be made available to our industry up to £9,000 per 28-day period, with similar tiered increases for businesses up to a £51,000 rateable value.
  • The 5% VAT rate on hospitality and leisure supplies should be extended until the end of the 2021/22 tax year. This will allow businesses some space to hopefully build back depleted cash reserves and allow them some space to make their loan repayments.

With this targeted support, our industry might just be able to struggle on and keep providing a societal benefit past COVID-19 and into the future. We appreciate the Government has already provided a significant amount of support, but that money risks being wasted if further support is not provided.

Thank you in advance for your support.


Yours sincerely,

Janice Dunphy

Association of Indoor Play


Explaining the thinking behind the letter, Janice said: “We have made pretty specific suggestions and would hope to hear back from the government very quickly. We also asked separately whether we may see the crisis payments of up to £50,000 to Scottish businesses become available in England. We’re at the same point here as they were when they got their payouts in devolved Scotland. But we were told categorically that they would not be paid out here.

“If we are going to be forced to close in tier three and effectively be closed in tier two, then we need to triple the level of funding now. We believe a centre will need around £1 a square foot to pay their rent and fixed costs and get through this. We want indoor play to be given the same assistance that restaurants and pubs have had. They’ve had schemes thrown at them and they are still struggling. We’ve had nothing.”

Direct support for members

While keeping the communications channels open with government, the association has also focused on providing direct help for the industry it represents and tried to be both proactive and responsive to the questions and needs of businesses that are distressed. “It isn’t straightforward representing members who are dealing with different local and regional guidelines, the tier systems and so on,” explained Janice. “Through the Facebook forum and other platforms, we have been talking with people and addressing questions and concerns. We have also been doing training days online – we brought someone in to talk through the furlough system and also an insolvency practitioner who came in and talked through the legalities of insolvency and trading through it. It wasn’t a nice hour to listen to, but it was very useful information and they were brilliant. We’ve got another one coming up on dealing with landlords, which is becoming a bigger issue as the pressure starts to be exerted on operators. The session will detail what a landlord’s rights are and what an operator’s rights are and how best to handle the inevitable pressure when it’s applied. Several members have told us that their landlord has been bringing people in to look at their units while they can’t operate through no fault of their own, which is horrendous really.  

“We’re constantly trying to generate media interest too and we’ve started a hashtag campaign, which is not the easiest thing to do at this time of year admittedly. But needs must. We’re also trying to get some mummy bloggers and ideally high-profile celebrity mums to write about the mental and physical benefits of soft play for their children.”

The second lockdown has, of course, made things worse for the industry. “This is the time of year when we’re making our money and to be locked down these last few weeks, then to find out we face being closed through Christmas and possibly into the New Year is terrible for us,” Janice explained. “People had money in their business in the first lockdown, but they just haven’t got the reserves now. Whilst the furlough is helpful as it allows us to retain our staff, it does nothing for the business side of things. We were all expecting the job retention bonus of £1,000 per member of staff for retaining staff through Christmas, but the Chancellor has decided to pull that funding. We’ve talked to the government about that – it was in people’s cash flow forecasts, quite understandably, and to take it away because it doesn’t fit the national budget anymore is another devastating blow for many operators.”

Several more centres have already had to close in the last month and AIP sadly believes it is inevitable there will be more to follow in the next couple of months. “I think the over-riding emotion amongst operators right now is worry,” she said. “There is annoyance and anger that some people are flouting the rules, but of course everyone is fighting to save their business and livelihood and they are seeing such inconsistency in the rules. It’s hard for a lot of people to not think that this could be the end for them.”

Representing her own business, Web Adventure Park, Janice Dunphy took part in a Panorama programme on the BBC last week. Business on the Brink looked at the case studies of three businesses in different sectors in Yorkshire and they had been impacted by the pandemic. We recommend you catch up with the show on iPlayer if you didn’t see it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Morton Michel.