Hartlepool gym owner on trial over alleged Covid breaches says he was running mental health support group

A gym owner told a court he had helped save lives by allowing people inside his premises to protest against the coronavirus lockdown.

Wednesday, 30th March 2022, 4:20 pm
Updated Thursday, 31st March 2022, 4:38 pm

Former Mr Universe Edmund Ellwood faces four charges relating to alleged Covid breaches at Xtreme Fitness, on the Longhill Industrial Estate, in Hartlepool, last year.

He denies contravening a direction by the local authority on February 2 and 7, 2021, by allowing people to enter the gym as well as two counts of failing to comply with a prohibition notice on the same dates.

At that time, England was under strict Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions which required gyms to close.

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Edmund Ellwood outside Teesside Magistrates Court at a previous hearing.

In a trial at Teesside Magistrates’ Court, Ellwood, 58, known as Eddy, said he was running a mental health support group but would not deny visitors the use of gym equipment as part of a peaceful protest.

Police and a council officer said they saw people using the gym when they visited it in January and February last year.

Ian Harrison, Hartlepool Borough Council’s trading standards and licensing manager, said when he delivered a prohibition notice in response to alleged Covid breaches on January 12 last year: “There was people clearly exercising inside the gym.”

And when he tried to serve a direction to close order on the gym on January 20, Mr Harrison said he saw four people leave wearing “various forms of leisure wear”.

Ellwood refused to accept the order and argues it was not properly served on him, claiming Mr Harrison did not explain what was in the envelope.

Two police officers also gave evidence that they saw people exercising in the gym on February 2 and 7.

On each occasion Ellwood said they were members of a peaceful protest group citing universal law and their human rights.

Giving evidence, Ellwood became emotional when talking about a gym member who ended their own life and another who was sectioned during the first lockdown.

He said he started a mental health support group in a park in Sunderland in June 2020 and continued it in the gym in the winter.

He said: “I was supporting individuals for mental health and it was a protest against the Coronavirus Act.”

Ellwood told the court the average age of visitors was 33 whereas the majority of Covid cases and deaths were in those aged over 40.

"We sat and discussed mental health issues and just supported each other,” he said.

"One or two did ask to use the equipment.”

Asked by defence barrister Dr John Wood what he was trying to achieve, he said: “Saving a life. People were coming up to me saying ‘you have no idea how much this has meant to us for what you did’.”

He said he believed “100%” he had done the right thing, adding: “If this happens again I will do whatever it takes to save a man’s life.”

Witnesses who had attended the group described how it had helped them to deal with mental health and isolation.

Ellwood said the gym was not open for business at the time and visitors were not asked to pay.

He added there were notices in the window saying it was a protest and visitors were asked to sign disclaimers.

The case was adjourned until Friday, April 1.

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