'Dithering' of politicians has come at a high cost to children: Dr John McSparran

Dr John McSparran believes outdoor sports for children should be restored immediately and not on April 12
Dr John McSparran believes outdoor sports for children should be restored immediately and not on April 12

DR John McSparran has accused the Stormont Executive of “carte blanche dithering” and says children should be playing outdoor sports now rather than having to wait until April 12.

The Cushendall GP, who is also a former Antrim GAA chairman, believes many restrictions placed on children over the past year have never been proportionate and warns of a tsunami of mental health issues coming down the tracks from the fall-out of lockdown.

Last Tuesday, the Northern Ireland Executive announced that groups of 15 could train together from April 12, while there were also relaxations around golf and tennis from the start of next month.

The Irish Government, meanwhile, are this week considering moving to reopen outdoor sports for U18s as early as April 5, which could potentially mean the south will be ahead of the six counties by a week despite the painfully slow roll-out of the vaccination programme in the 26 counties.

Throughout the pandemic in the north, the Health Minister Robin Swann and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride have emphasised the importance of the stay-at-home message even though it is now accepted among the medical and scientific profession that the risk of COVID transmission among children outdoors is infinitesimal.

“They say all their decisions are based on data and yet whenever they’re actually asked: ‘Where’s the data?’ They just come out with soundbites, like: ‘Well, it goes against the stay-at-home message.’

“It’s nonsense. It’s just a farce to think people will stay at home. What do they think they’re doing?

“If you go to any play park on a good day you’ll find they’re mobbed with children, so why not take them to an organised sporting activity that’s COVID-aware and is taking the necessary precautions and providing a structure for them. I don’t see why that couldn’t be started now.”

McSparran also feels the GAA could have been more vocal in lobbying to get children playing sport again but says they were “probably put on the back foot” following the various celebrations that came in the wake of some club championship finals last summer, which caused some controversy.

“From a national basis I think the GAA has handled things fairly well but they were let down by activities of certain counties where celebrations were way beyond what should have happened,” he said.

“I don’t suppose any one person could be blamed for that. It might have been years since a club won a championship. But it put the GAA on the back foot in terms [asking for] the re-introduction of games for children.

“The GAA probably could have been more vocal in terms of how important it is for kids to be able to play, even if it’s only going to training with their own clubs.

“At county level it went off well last year. The commitment of county players is on a par of professional sport so I don’t see a reason why that shouldn’t start up again.”

Elite status is expected to be restored to the GAA’s inter-county teams and they could start training on April 5, at the same time as has been mooted for outdoor sports in the south restarting.

When the history is written on the fall-out from the pandemic, Dr McSparran believes the “billions of pounds wasted” on a “failed” ‘test and trace’ system will be one of many stand-out government failings.

“The effects of people’s mental health are charging down the road at us too,” he warned. “I have had phone calls every day from distraught parents, single parents who really can’t cope and are at the point of wanting psychotropic medication to get them through this because they don’t see any other way out of it.

“Every single day that’s happening now. People have COVID burn-out, and the powers-that-be need to realise that there is only so much people can put up with.

“We’ve bought into it, we’ve done our best, there has to be light at the end of the tunnel, but the messages that are being relayed by Stormont show no hope whatsoever.”

Dr McSparran added: “I’m back coaching the kids at Cushendun. The kids have a great time any time we provide a structure for them outdoors.

“Isn’t it better for them to be doing that instead of playing Xbox and looking at TV? It broadens their whole horizons and enhances their social skills. It’s vitally important for them to be allowed to do that.

“It gives the adults a structure to be able to get out and do something rather than be confined to barracks 24/7.

“Dr Tom Black [BMA chair for Northern Ireland] has talked about the front line staff being hammered, and they have been hammered. But you know what, when they go home they’re faced with the same restrictions as everybody else. There is no respite for them whatsoever.”

While the Northern Ireland Executive said it was their intention to allow collective outdoors to return on April 12, they added it would be contingent on COVID rates remaining low.

“Some days I don’t think the restrictions were ever proportionate,” he said.

“Shutting down schools completely, particularly primary schools. It’s questionable how proportionate and how necessary that was given the fact that there was very little evidence of transmission in primary schools.

“Maybe if there is a primary school with 500 or 600 kids there might be a problem. Locally, we have 40 or 50 pupils at most in a rural environment. This one-size-fits-all was a mistake. It didn’t have to happen that way. The older groups may be more likely to spread it but the younger years less so.

“I just feel there is a permanent wave of mental health issues which were absolutely dreadful beforehand in terms of the services available to people, and they’re going to be far worse now.”