'Let our children get back to playing outdoor sport'

LEGENDARY Ireland hockey player and Drumquin native, Shirley McCay, is among a large group of prominent sports people who have given their backing to a campaign to persuade the Northern Ireland Executive to renew access to outdoor sports for children.

Former Tyrone great Peter Canavan, senior footballer Conor Meyler and Red Hand senior hurling manager Michael McShane have also added their signatures to a letter urging Stormont officials to give “immediate consideration” to their call.

Other signatories to the letter include Ballinamallard United boss Harry McConkey, and Tyrone-born Leeds United and Northern Ireland star Stuart Dallas.

They argue that children are suffering unnecessarily from not being able to enjoy sporting activity with their friends.

And they insist that outdoor sport for youngsters presents a minimal risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus.

The correspondence asserts that the “curtailing of outdoor youth sport is unnecessary and not supported by either science or best practice”.

“We write this letter to give voice to the frustration felt within our communities and clubs at the neglect of youth sport here throughout the current health crisis and the associated impact on our young people’s wellbeing,” says the letter.

“We believe the curtailing of outdoor youth sport is now unnecessary and not supported by either science or best practice.

“We acknowledge the absolute necessity to make provision to minimise the risk of spreading the virus in our society.

“We do not believe that outdoor sport under adequate controls contradicts that approach.

“Sport often provides our children with their only means of escape from the Covid nightmare that we are all currently living through.

“When they are engaged in activity they love with friends they are liberated from worry.

“There is no value that can be attached to that opportunity.

“With the exception of a brief period of respite between the first week in July 2020 and the 16 October 2020, children have been restricted in their sporting activity for a period in excess of seven of those ten months since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.

“For five of those seven months there has existed a complete prohibition on organised outdoor sporting activity for children.

“By the end of the current extension, during more than seven months in the past year children here will have been prohibited from playing sport outside at a time when they were also excluded from school, and, by natural extension, school PE.”

The letter states that the Executive’s own publication of restrictions acknowledge that no impact assessment has been prepared for these regulations.

“The impact of these prolonged periods of the prohibition of organised sport has been devastating on our most vulnerable.

“On Sunday 16 January 2021 a major coalition of child health experts, including Northern Ireland’s mental health champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill, were signatories of a letter to the Observer on Sunday newspaper declaring that ‘children’s welfare has become a national emergency’ and noting that ‘the pandemic is having a devastating effect on the childhoods of children and young people across the country’.

“On Tuesday 19 January 2021, the Prince’s Trust published its annual Youth Index Report and described the pandemic as taking a ‘devastating toll’ on young people’s health and wellbeing, with one in four young people ‘unable to cope with life’ since the start of the pandemic.

“The importance of play deprivation within the context of ‘lockdowns’ and the subsequent effects on children’s physical and mental health was the subject of research commissioned by The Play Safety Forum.

“The report concluded as far back as the 17 June 2020 and 2 September 2020 that the current UK interventions to deal with Covid-19 required urgent review.”

The letter further stated: “There are no confirmed transmissions of Covid-19 through participation in outdoor sport.

“The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance acknowledged that he is ‘not aware’ of Covid-19 transmission between children playing football outdoors and the Westminster Government have made provision for this understanding in their restrictions.

“Up to and including tier four restrictions in England include exemptions for organised under-18 and disabled outdoor sport to continue.”

The letter concluded: “We ask that immediate action is taken to mandate the resumption of outdoor youth sport in covid safe environments so as to begin to address the deepening wellbeing crisis among our young people.

“We also request that the value of youth sport is recognised and considered holistically as part of any future public health steps to address the pandemic.”

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