GAA Football

High-profile sports figures challenge the legitimacy of ban on outdoor sport for children

In a petition to the heads of government, a group of high-profile sports figures want children's outdoor sports back

To: Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

February 10 2021

RE: The value and impact of youth sport in society

Dear First and Deputy First Minister,

We, the undersigned, 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 of our young people’s wellbeing. 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 October 16 2020, children have been restricted in their sporting activity for a period in excess of seven of those 10 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 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 as the social, emotional and physical benefits of play had been undervalued and completely ignored and, as a consequence, children were suffering harm.

It is hugely alarming that this report was issued almost five months ago and the blanket restrictions on children’s play remain in this jurisdiction.

In March 2020 the prohibition on children’s sport received widespread support within our communities and children made huge sacrifices. Community support has now been replaced by frustration and increasingly anger as families watch their children suffer physically and mentally on a daily basis, whilst children in other jurisdictions are cherished and nurtured.

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 organized u18 and disabled outdoor sport to continue.

There are clear lessons around us internationally. France, Holland and some Scandinavian countries have written into law exemptions from restrictions for youth and disability sport with no adverse effects, motivated by the broader understanding of child welfare and supported by science. In recent days Sweden have announced a similar approach. Their Minister for Culture and Sport observed “Activities for youngsters sport activities should now open fully – we want to avoid negative consequences for kids as much as possible”.

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 recognized and considered holistically as part of any future public health steps to address the pandemic.

Thank you for considering the issues raised in this letter. We look forward to your considered response and are open to contributing to any process that can benefit the wellbeing young people in our society through the delivery of sport.


The undersigned.

Adams, Jane (Camogie coach); Armstrong, John (Rowing Ireland & QUB Coach); Aston, Katy (Queen’s Ladies Hockey Captain); Barnes, Conor (Ardoyne GAA Coach); Barnes, Paddy (Ulster Boxing Development); Best, Rory (Ulster, Ireland & Lions Rugby); Bradley, Eoin (Coleraine FC Striker); Brown, Frankie (Ards Hockey Club); Campbell, Hugh (Senior Lecturer, Ulster University); Connolly, John (Ballinamallard FC player); Canavan, Peter (Director of Sport, Holy Trinity College); Coulter, Benny (Down GAA Coach); Connor, Sean (Institute FC Manager); Crossan, Brendan (Irish News Journalist); Dallas, Stuart (N Ireland Soccer international); Devine, Conor (Ironman competitor); Fleming, Seán (President Irish Judo & PE Teacher); Elliott, Noleen (Dungannon Ladies Hockey club); Ferris, Stephen (Ulster, Ireland & Lions); Forker, Aidan (Armagh GAA & Teacher); Grugan, Rory (Armagh GAA & Teacher); Getty, Erin (International Hockey player); Hamilton, Gary (Glenavon FC Manager); Henderson, Ryan (Lurgan Celtic FC) ; Kearney, Oran (Coleraine FC Manager); Kelly, Wayne (Portadown Rugby club); Lennon, Ivor (Lurgan Boys & Portadown Ladies Hockey); King, Sarah (Fierce Rugby); Louden, Adam (Lisnagarvey, Ulster & Ireland Hockey); McAlister, Peita (Ulster Women’s Rugby player); Maginnes, Lauren (Ulster Women’s Rugby player); Maguire, Teah (Cooke Girls Hockey); Lawn, Declan (Hurling Coach); McConkey, Harry (Ballinamallard & PE Teacher); McAreavey, Paul (Glenavon coach); McCluskey, Ryan (Fermanagh GAA); Dr McConaghy, Martin (Sport & Ex Medicine Consultant); McCrory, Simon (Hurling player & Coach); McCullagh, Mickey (Hurling Coach); McDermott, Mick (Glentoran FC Manager); McFlynn, Paul (Derry GAA & PE Teacher); McDonnell, Stevie (GAA Coach); McGeeney, Kieran (Armagh GAA Manager); McGibbon, Pat (Physio & Train 2B Smart); McGourty, CJ (GAA Coach); McGrane, Paul (Armagh GAA); McKay, Shirley (Irish Hockey International); McKnight, Naomi - Ards Hockey Development Officer); McLaughlin, Ryan (Northern Ireland Soccer International); McIlwaine, Chloe (Hockey Development Officer); McLaughlin, Liz (Head of Sport, QUB); McNeilly, Gareth (Disabled golfer); Meyler, Conor (Tyrone GAA & Teacher); McShane, Michael (Hurling Manager); Dr McSparran, John (Former Antrim GAA Chair); McVeagh, Kevin (Disability football coach); Mullen, Darren (Newry City Manager); Milligan, Caragh (Glentoran & NI International); Neill, Kyle (Glenavon Coach); Murphy, Colly (Rossa Hurling Manager); O’Connor, Kieran – Ex Cliftonville player); O’Kane, Gerard (Former Derry GAA Captain); O'Rourke, Aidan (Orchard Academy); Oakes, Karl (Down GAA Coaching Officer); Poland, Mark (Down GAA Coach); Robinson, Cathy (Sports educator QUB Hockey); Quinn, Muirinn (Camogie Coach & teacher) Sands, Noel (Down Hurling Coach); Shanks, Charly (Handball); Shaw, Francis (Athletics & PE Teacher); Smyth, Marc (Youth League Organiser); Suffern, Derek (Director of Rugby, Wallace HS); Tally, Paddy (Down GAA & Senior PE lecturer); Thompson, Peter (QUB Soccer Manager); Wallace, Paddy (Ulster & Ireland Rugby); Walsh, Roisin (Belfast Harlequins Junior Hockey); Walker, Hannah (Queen’s Hockey Manager); Wilson, Mark (Swimming Coach)

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