Northern Ireland news

Coronavirus: Parks in Belfast could be shut due to concerns over gatherings

Ormeau Park in south Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
Brendan Hughes

PARKS in Belfast could be shut due to concerns that growing crowds as lockdown restrictions ease are leading to increased anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol use and criminality.

A considerable amount "is at a level which clearly requires a police response", a senior city council official has said.

In an internal memo seen by The Irish News, the official warns that staff do not have any powers to enforce social distancing rules in parks and open spaces.

He said parks may be closed if necessary, but this would have a "limited effect" as some are easily accessible even when locked.

Police in north Belfast said they have been responding to multiple reports of young people congregating, with some involved in "anti-social behaviour, drinking, playing loud music, breaking bottles and setting small fires".

There have also been reports of scrambler-type motorcycles being driven irresponsibly, police added.

Council staff are to meet with senior PSNI officers next week to discuss the problems.

It comes amid concerns that increasing numbers of people across the north are ignoring movement restrictions aimed a curbing the spread of Covid-19.

Many have flocked to parks in recent days during the sunny weather.

Police say they are stepping up patrols at beauty spots, resorts and transport hubs and have urged people to avoid popular destinations when exercising.

In the internal memo, the council official said the easing of restrictions and good weather has led to growing numbers in council parks, open spaces and pitch facilities, including gatherings of young people.

He wrote: "Unfortunately there is also a growing amount of anti-social behaviour, increasing litter/waste, drug and alcohol use and criminality."

Officials have been liaising with the PSNI on concerns about Marrowbone Park in north Belfast and Ormeau Park in the south of the city, he said.

"A considerable amount of the behaviour reported is at a level which clearly requires a police response," he added.

"Council officers do not have any powers in relation to enforcement of Covid-19 regulations regarding social distancing and restrictions on movement in parks/open spaces.

"We will of course act to close particular parks should the circumstances dictate, however experience shows that can have limited effect, given how accessible some of our facilities are regardless of the gates being locked."

Normal park warden services are "very limited" due to staffing pressures, and they need to consider how to tackle anti-social behaviour safely and in compliance with Covid-19 guidance.

Staff will meet with the PSNI next week "to discuss these issues and explore a collaborative approach".

Alliance councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown expressed concern.

"It's deeply disappointing to see reports of anti-social behaviour and obviously nobody should be taking drugs or drinking alcohol in our parks," he said.

"With the good weather, more people have been using the city's parks, but I'd remind people that the advice remains to maintain social distance.

"Coronavirus is still spreading through our community and whilst we have made progress in suppressing the virus, this is still only tentative."

In Northern Ireland, lockdown restrictions have been eased to allow groups of up to six people to meet outdoors while maintaining social distancing.

Sinn Féin West Belfast MP Paul Maskey said he has be dealing with reports of large gatherings of young people in recent days, with many of drinking alcohol.

"I am appealing directly to those young people involved to act responsibly. Your actions can potentially have serious ramifications for your personal health, that of your family and also our community," he said.

Inspector Paul Noble said police are reviewing footage and will continue to patrol parks.

He urged parents and guardians to speak to their children and reiterated public safety messages on social distancing.

"Young people who choose to engage in anti-social behaviour must understand it is unacceptable and must stop," he said.

"People have a right to live in peace and to feel safe in their communities," he said.

Meanwhile, Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said patrols would be increased at some locations across the north over the weekend.

He said data suggests the rate of transmission of coronavirus has increased as restrictions have been eased.

"This means that every one of us needs to make informed and sensible decisions about our conduct over the coming days to ensure that we are protecting our own health and the health of others," he said.

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