Spas and firms offering complementary therapies such as massage, detox and hydrotherapy have told the BBC they could go out of business soon if they cannot reopen in July.
“I can sustain my business for another two weeks, and that’s it,” says Michelle Geraghty-Carns, owner of complementary therapy clinic EternalBeing and spa firm EternalSpa in Enderby, Leicestershire.
Entrepreneurs in the industry were already struggling with a slump in demand, having had to shut their businesses due to coronavirus restrictions.
But when spas and firms offering complementary therapies were not included on a long list of businesses allowed to reopen from 4 July, many felt dismay.
Ms Geraghty-Carns, who has been in business for 20 years, last week made the difficult decision to shut her spa down because she could no longer afford the lease on the premises.
Her clinic, which offers a range of treatments for allergies, intolerances and deficiencies, is in slightly better shape but still on shaky ground.
Like others in the complementary therapy sector, Ms Geraghty-Carns is “frustrated and annoyed” that the government is permitting hairdressers, pubs and restaurants in England to reopen, but not businesses like her own.
It considers spas and firms offering complementary therapies to be “close contact” – and therefore riskier – services, but she feels they are no less safe. The BBC has approached the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for a comment.
Although she is certified by several national complementary therapy governing bodies, Ms Geraghty-Carns’ work is not officially classed as healthcare, so it falls into a grey area and is often mistaken as being part of the beauty industry.
“No one’s using any common sense when looking at separate businesses,” she says. “You speak to your insurer, or the local council, and we’re told we’ve got to wait until the government gives us the sign-off.”
Adding to her woes, Ms Geraghty-Carns had recently refurbished her clinic and spa and invested heavily in personal protective equipment (PPE), expecting she would be allowed to reopen.
“That all cost £38,000 and we’ve had to get a bank loan to pay for it. And I just picked up the latest in American hydrotherapy equipment last week that costs £20,000,” she says.
‘What do you mean by massage parlour?’
Professional massage therapists in the UK are facing a similar challenge, but they also have to contend with negative connotations wrongly attributed to their occupation.
“I think the government’s phrasing of ‘massage parlour’ is hugely disturbing. I don’t know what kind of parlours politicians frequent, but my work is in pain management,” says Anneli Hukins, a former nurse and self-employed mobile massage therapist in Kent, who owns health business Woodstock Holistics.
“I’m furious that having spent so much of my life studying to treat people who are sick or injured I’m being told to stay at home, when hairdressers can go to work, and hairdressing is not an essential part of health and wellbeing.”
Ms Hukins, a fellow of the Complementary Medical Association (CMA), is currently writing a paper on why massage therapy should be reclassified as being on par with other physical therapies such as physiotherapy and osteopathy.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has found that massage can help conditions such as sciatica and lower back pain as an alternative to medication, but the NHS is not currently offering this therapy.
Gillian Tomkins, 70, from Northiam, East Sussex, is a retired nurse who suffers from osteoarthritis. It is incurable – a side effect from being on her feet for most of her career.
“I’ve had one hip replacement. The other hip is no good and my shoulders are no good,” she says. “I’m in constant pain and I’m taking more pain medication than I was before lockdown began.”
Ms Tomkins says she misses her massage therapist and is “desperate” for relief, as her medication only goes so far.
“I only see my therapist once every other week and it’s amazing, it keeps you going.”
‘We need to open urgently’
Aly Thobani is the owner and director of Spa and Massage, a chain of five massage therapy clinics in London that started in 2007.
He employs healthcare professionals, physiotherapists and massage therapists, all of whom are certified.
“I am worried about the future of my business. The prolonged closure runs up more costs and we’re already in a very precarious position,” he says.
“We’ve got hundreds of emails from clients enquiring whether we can send therapists to their homes, but mobile massage therapy is not allowed either.”
Before the pandemic, the business was doing 1,000 massages a week. Like many in the wellbeing industry, Mr Thobani had expected that if hairdressers could open, so could other services providing hands-on therapies.
He is very upset by the government’s recent announcement: “What Boris Johnson said about massage parlours is insulting and discriminatory, because a massage parlour has a connotation of something sexual.
“But massage therapy clinics are a mainstream business – people are coming to get something fixed.
“During treatment, the client lies face down. We have air-ventilated rooms, the client can wear masks, we can wear masks. We can check temperatures and we have an appointment-only service.”
Mr Thobani is worried because landlords are chasing rent on his five premises, and from 30 September onwards they will be able to take legal action against those who can’t pay.
It means Spa and Massage needs to find the money to pay for around four months of rent covering lockdown, its PPE costs, and the salaries of staff when they come back to work.
But revenues are likely to be 50% lower than usual even if the firm can reopen, Mr Thobani says, because it will not be able to see as many clients as it could prior to lockdown.
“We need to see the government allow massage therapy clinics to open urgently and change the classification of such businesses to be medical professionals,” he says.
“My life savings are in this, years of work, and all of our contractors are also sitting at home.
“They’re all really passionate about their work – this is what they do, they fix people. It’s their livelihood and they have no idea when they will be able to work again.”