Campaigners call for return of children’s outdoor sport

High profile sport stars are among campaigners urging politicians to prioritise the return of outdoor youth sport, with Ireland’s most capped sportswoman warning children are the ‘forgotten generation’ in the pandemic. The McMahons are a family who love their sport. The children are desperately missing being able to play in an organised environment.

Young Senan tells UTV he misses the “excitement of a match, the intensity of the practice” and “seeing his friends”. His dad Barry is principal of a primary school and a gaelic football coach. He believes sport and play need to be prioritised as society emerges from lockdown - in particular for children in socially deprived areas. "It's going to be about having fun, having a bit of craic, getting to know each other again, forming those bonds again, that's what children have missed out on," he says. Melissa Wylie is a mum of three and also a psychiatrist. She says children “really need to be prioritised”. “They’ve lost a lot. Sport comes into the side of things where they are trying to learn the social skills, which as adults are so important in life." A leading academic and an expert in physical education is critical of the decision to curtail outdoor sport. Professor Marie Murphy says the risk of transmission of the virus in a controlled environment outside and among children is negligible.

"We don't have evidence that suggests that outdoor sports increases transmission or is a major source of transmission, in fact the evidence that we do have says exactly the opposite."

"We are on the basis of little or no evidence, depriving children of something that they probably need now more than ever."

Professor Marie Murphy

Many of Northern Ireland's sporting stars are now urging the Executive to act. In a letter they say the curtailing of outdoor youth sport is now 'unnecessary and not supported by either science or best practice'.

Ireland Hockey international Shirley McCay warns that children are the "forgotten generation" in this pandemic. Credit: PA

Shirley McCay a hockey international and Ireland's most capped sportswoman feels strongly about speaking up for children.

They are our forgotten generation at the moment, they obviously don't have a voice and the more we can represent them and try and articulate some of their thoughts and feelings towards getting back to playing sport, the better.

Shirley McCay, Ireland Hockey international

Shirley adds: "I just think its so important that we do our best to get them out, to get them playing in a safe and controlled environment.” One former Irish league footballer and manager who is now coordinator of the Belfast Met football academy agrees. Stephen Small says: "It's essential we resume as soon as possible, for the health of our children, both the physical and mental health, it's so important that they start to socially interact, physically interact.” As another weekend approaches many children, coaches and parents will be deeply disappointed that despite news of the gradual return of schools there's still no change in sight for outdoor sport. Commenting on the situation on Friday, NI Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said organised outdoor sport still carries a risk but he recognised how children have “paid a very high price”. “Obviously physical activity is very important, not only for our physical health and wellbeing but our mental health and wellbeing. Children do play a role in household transmission, we know that in younger children are twice as likely to be the first case in a household, children over 12 are eight times more likely to be the first case in their household,” he explained. “Organised sport carries with it risk and as soon as we are in the position to make further relaxations, we will look at the scenarios where it is safe where it is safe for children to mix because of course it is having an impact, we all recognise that. “I just want to commend those clubs, those coaches who are ensuring that school children are being active and remaining active during the current restrictions. Hopefully we'll get to a place very soon where we'll be able to see the return of structured organised activity for children. That time is just not yet, hopefully it will be soon if we can keep the virus in check.”