Solicitor Stephen Atherton bouyed by Gabriel Scally's assessment on child's play

Stephen Atherton is mounting a legal challenge to the Executive's decision to ban children playing contact sport

SOLICITOR and soccer enthusiast Stephen Atherton remains “very confident” that the decisions of the Northern Ireland Executive prohibiting children playing contact sport outside will be deemed “an unlawful violation of a child’s right to play”.

Atherton of John J McNally’s Solicitors in Magherafelt said he was buoyed by the assessments of public health expert Professor Gabriel Scally and Britain’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance who both believe the transmission rates among children outdoors is negligible – with grassroots soccer expected to resume in England next weekend.

Atherton said: “From a legal perspective, given the opinion of Patrick Vallance and, more importantly and recently for children here, the opinion of Professor Scally, I am now happy to go on record and state that I am very confident that the decisions of the Northern Ireland Executive in October and on the 19th of November prohibiting children to play contact sport outside will, in due course, be considered by the High Court to be an unlawful violation of a child’s right to play.”

In an interview with The Irish News, Scally reacted to being told soccer teams below ‘elite’ level were currently not allowed to use a ball.

"I don't understand why you wouldn't be allowed a ball, I really don't,” said the Bristol-based professor.

"You could sanitise the ball before you play and everyone can do hand sanitising in case of throw ins, and it should be allowed. And then the ball would be sanitised at the end.

"The chances [of transmission], if you compare that with other things that kids are doing in their lives, is significantly lower.

"The only question is would you be playing kids from another class or another school. How would that be handled? You would have to know that that school or team was also taking action.

"You could also make it one of the rules that there is no shouting, so if they happen to be infectious they're not expelling a lot of virus.

"But I would really have thought with children running around and air being blown around that the risk would be significantly lower than those same children sitting in a classroom,” Scally added.

Currently, there is no data that suggests children playing outdoor sports has had an impact on the transmission rates of Covid19 – an observation supported by Vallance in early November.

Last week, Atherton expressed his disappointment at not receiving any public backing from the Irish Football Association in trying to break the deadlock over the restrictions imposed on children.

The Glasgow-born father-of-five resigned in protest from his voluntary position on IFA’s disciplinary committee and also criticised the office of the Northern Ireland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People.

Responding in a statement, Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma said: “The specific restrictions on children playing outdoor sports are regrettable as physical exercise is vital for our children’s mental health and wellbeing, however these restrictions stop contact and movement of adults and young people and therefore reduce the likelihood of transmission.”

She continued: “I believe these short-term restrictions will ensure that children can enjoy their rights to sports, leisure, arts, culture and play to a fuller extent in the longer term.

“This position was not arrived at lightly but these are extraordinary times and these difficult choices have to be made.

“I will continue to monitor the situation.”

Before the complete lockdown of sports last Thursday night for a two-week period, sports teams could train in non-contact training pods of 15, but soccer clubs were further hampered by no football involved.

Many sports clubs didn’t see any merit in holding training sessions for younger age groups with them being non-contact and no ball involved.

Youth coaches across many different codes are frustrated with the Executive's decision to effectively close down activity for children and young people at a time when there is a major emphasis on minding their mental and physical health.

In a statement, Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín said: “Exercise of any sort is known to help improve both the physical and mental health of everybody, young and old.

“However, the current restrictions are deemed necessary as a result of the latest public health advice. It is therefore of paramount importance that they remain in place to ensure the safety of us all as collectively we work to fight the spread of Covid-19.”

It would appear Scally and Vallance clinical analysis would be at odds with the advice the Executive is receiving.

Asked what data the Executive is working off to justify imposing severe restrictions on outdoor sports for children and young people, a Department of Health reply did not address the question and encouraged everyone to “reduce interactions in all circumstances to the lowest possible level”.

Scally also drew attention to the mixing of households at Christmas and compared that significant risk to children playing outdoors in a controlled environment.

“You can have people from different households sitting across one table, no masks on, nothing and indoors. And the comparative risk of kids playing sport outside - it’s huge, hugely different,” said Scally.

Dr Scally is Honorary Professor of Public Health at the University of Bristol and President of the Epidemiology and Public Health section of the Royal Society of Medicine. He was educated in Belfast and attended St Kevin’s Primary School on the Falls Road.

Lamenting the specific design of his old school, he explained: “It was built on public health principles. It faced south overlooking the bog meadows to the sun.

“There were huge amount of glass windows, opening top and bottom, very high ceilings, there were no interior corridors; the interior of the school had a courtyard in the middle of it with balconies around the storeys. It was for good ventilation and sunshine.

“There is also a fantastic history of outdoor schools. Children who were regarded as fragile or sickly went to special schools where they were educated mostly outdoors by being well wrapped up. They had classrooms where you could slide the walls away. It was fantastic. They were really big in the States as well. But all that has changed.”

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