Slowing the spread of Covid-19 is a shared national priority and it’s vital we all follow current guidelines, including social distancing, and take care of those who are vulnerable.
However, we think any restrictions on children playing outside also need to be very carefully assessed, and reassessed, in the round. Our own view is that young children under 12 need to be able to play outside together in some way. This follows the ongoing decision of the First Minister for Scotland and current Scottish Covid laws, and the views of the Children’s Commissioner for England, London Play and many others. Here are some important reasons why.
So far and overall, scientific evidence internationally (updated Dec 2020) tells us that compared to adults and teenagers, young children are at very low risk and appear to play a limited role in spreading Covid-19. Children are far less likely to get Covid (1 – 5%0 of all cases), it takes a far milder course, if not a-symptomatic (1% develop severe or life threatening disease) and child deaths from Covid are extremely rare (0.01 – 0.1% of cases, similar to the rare death rate of seasonal influenza). Evidence shows that children’s role in spreading the virus is limited. Also, we know that there is a much lesser risk of anyone spreading the virus whilst outside.
Playing with other children is vital to children’s physical, mental, social and cognitive health. It is also how children let off steam and cope with anxiety and challenges, which is more important now than ever. The UK Play Policy Forum have published a report on Children and Covid-19 calling for children to be able to play freely outside with no social distancing restrictions, based on scientific evidence.
At certain times, organised outdoor activities and sports have been allowed to go ahead for children’s health and wellbeing. However, these are often paid-for group activities. This means that children from better off families only may have greater opportunity to play together outside and be active.
Weighing up all these factors, many agree that England’s Covid-19 law should be different for children. Sarah Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, has tweeted “Playing with other children is a developmentally crucial activity, and shouldn’t be made illegal.” And since July, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has wanted children under 12 to be exempt from social distancing outside, as in Wales and Scotland.
Because it’s so essential to children, children’s right to play is enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty the UK has fully signed up to. This means it should be taken into account in law and policy making. As the Children’s Commissioner has said in her 10 Key Principles for putting children first in future lockdowns: “Children’s perspectives must be better reflected in scientific and public health advice. Any measures implemented must take into account children’s needs and circumstances where they differ from those of adults.” Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner has gone further: “A children’s rights impact assessment is essential in demonstrating the legitimacy of decision making and should be part of any significant policy changes.”
It’s incredibly confusing for parents to know what is allowed, because the rules keep changing, and are different across the four UK nations. Why are the rules so different in different countries? Why are the lives of children, parents and families far more negatively impacted in England, despite the scientific evidence? Why are children’s needs so ignored in law and policy-making around Covid-19 (as they also were during the spring lockdown)?
What we do know is that children and parents have already been hugely impacted, some devastatingly so. It is vital that any new restrictions and limitations for children have a strong rationale and are carefully decided in the round. Slowing the spread of Covid-19 is a shared national priority, but children and parents should not disproportionately bear the cost.