Peter Robinson: Outdoor sport has emotional and health benefits for children, so we need to see need to see evidence why it is banned

For generations it has been accepted that sport and recreation are essential components in child development.

By Peter Robinson
Friday, 26th February 2021, 8:00 am
Peter Robinson, who is a former DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, writes a bi weekly column for the News Letter every other Friday
Peter Robinson, who is a former DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, writes a bi weekly column for the News Letter every other Friday

Physical education is an important aspect of the school week and a major portion of after-school activities.

It helps students of all ages to stay physically healthy and emotionally fit and strong.

It imparts those values of teamwork, leadership and social interaction.

Physical education helps students of all ages to stay physically healthy and emotionally fit

At present schools are closed and youth sport is banned.

Equally, our elected leaders carry a heavy burden when making choices that have the potential to be life or death decisions or, at least, choices that have serious public health implications.

Rightly, they have tended to lean on the advice of health and scientific specialists to provide the evidence upon which they make those decisions.

On any reckoning health chiefs must balance not only the consequences and danger of Covid-spread but take into account the medium term and long term mental health effects of banning various activities.

An impressive list of our sporting greats appealed to the Stormont executive to immediately reconsider opening outdoor sport again for children.

They argued that a one size fits all approach should not be used and a “nuanced approach” by the executive is needed.

They would contend that if an exception can be made for elite sport then it can be done for youth sport.

In particular the sports personalities are concerned that at a time when outdoor sport is most needed our young people are stuck indoors glued to TV and computers.

The Department of Communities response was to continue with the ban on youth sport, and it offered no factual justification for its decision.

It relied on the unsubstantiated weary repetition of the line that indicated it was acting in accordance with medical and scientific advice.

I am not aware of any cases of Covid transmission between children involved in outdoor sport which makes the decision hard to fathom.

However, if such evidence is available the department should let us see it rather than responding to genuine concerns with trite statements leaving the impression that because it is not required to provide rationale for its decisions and will do what it wants because it can.

Frankly there are permitted activities far more likely to be detrimental than outdoor youth sport.

This undermines the overall policy.

Locking people up (or down) is such a violation of our individual freedoms that governments should only do so in the most extreme circumstances.

It is easy and correct for governments to argue that Covid transmission is one of the most exceptional of circumstances that could be faced.

Without doubt it forms the justification for the banning of activities that lead to the spread of the virus throughout the community. But government has a duty if it is taking away individual liberty to provide the statistically supported evidence to justify banning or curtailing each individual element of life?

Many activities will be shown to spread the virus but an overall blanket ban on every activity, even if there is no evidence that some them are contributing to the transmission of the virus, is not defensible.

We have lived with Covid-19 for more than a year so government will have built up a substantial body of evidence upon which reliable decisions can be taken.

Where are the up-to-date statistics to show the extent that each activity has contributed to the transmission of the virus?

If the Department of Health and the Executive have such data, they should share it in order to gain confidence in their planning.

We should not be treated to a catch-all statement saying it is consistent with medical and scientific advice and then denying us the benefit of seeing the strength of that advice.

I would love to see a list of life activities and the professional statistical proof and assessment of transmission for each.

I would be particularly keen to see where outdoor sport for children sits on that list.

Allowing outdoor sport for young people could be permitted with whatever restrictions are warranted.

Those in youth sport leadership know they have a duty of care for young people in their charge and would be diligent in exercising their responsibility within whatever limitations the Executive was to impose.

I suspect that children are more at risk closeted in their bedrooms riveted to video games than through healthy exercise in outdoor sport and long-term society may pay a heavy price.

Peter Robinson is a former First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the DUP

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