The Government has been urged to launch a radical activity action plan to safeguard the nation’s young people from the devastating potential health time bomb of a third Covid-19 lockdown.
With backing from senior figures across sport, Telegraph Sport’s ‘Keep Kids Active’ makes five key asks of the Government to ensure that children’s physical activity levels do not again plummet during another indefinite lockdown.
After the first national shut-down, the proportion of children meeting the chief medical officer’s recommended daily hour of activity nosedived alarmingly to just 19 per cent. Almost half of children were not even completing 30 minutes a day, with 73 per cent of teachers then identifying “low physical fitness” as an issue of concern when children return to schools last September.
The Government has been warned of serious long-term consequences without immediate action and then a concerted national plan that will place children’s physical activity at the heart of the Covid-19 recovery.
Telegraph Sport launched its campaign last year and, with most children now again facing a prolonged period out of school, is now calling for the Government to address the following five issues:
Alongside the Association for Physical Education and the Oak National Academy, the Youth Sports Trust has produced a virtual core PE curriculum and is on Wednesday calling on the government to expedite a national school sports plan.
Backing Telegraph Sport’s campaign asks, the Youth Sports Trust also stressed that daily physical activity would be “vital” for children in the coming weeks. “We know that young people’s activity levels plummeted during the first lockdown, and this has contributed to some of the issues they are now facing – from mental health difficulties and low levels of physical fitness to developmental delays,” said chief executive Ali Oliver.
“This current crisis has made the need for a long-term national strategy to tackle inactivity and the decline in young people’s wellbeing through sport and improved PE all the more urgent. Schools have done so much in overcoming impossible challenges in the last 10 months to keep children safe and able to learn. Over the coming weeks a virtual PE curriculum focused on recovery should be a priority. This could be a game changer for young people’s wellbeing.”
Industry leaders have also pointed to the vast expertise and array of online resources within the sector and urged the Government to create a centralised resource which would provide activities for parents, as well as advice on local outdoor recreational tools. “This needs to be a one stop virtual hub,” said Dr Chris Mackintosh, a senior lecturer in sport development at Manchester Metropolitan University. Alan Watkinson, who was Sir Mo Farah’s former PE teacher and still works in London schools, stressed the immediate need for a task-force to “collate and disseminate the outstanding practice and resources currently being produced”.
After the Government prioritised the opening of pubs and restaurants when lockdown measures were eased last year, Telegraph Sport is calling for children’s sport and activity to come first this year. When schools do reopen, potentially ahead of both the Easter and summer terms, this must also be accompanied by a concerted plan that places the vast benefits of sport and physical activity at the heart of the curriculum.
Former England rugby union captain Lawrence Dallaglio and Paralympic legend Tanni Grey-Thompson also want school sports facilities across both the private and state sectors to be available to children, if Covid restrictions allow, through the Easter and summer holidays. “Independent schools should have to open their facilities to the public for a period of time if they want to have charitable status,” said Dallaglio. “They have these amazing sports facilities that are unfortunately locked up for much of the year. It is a tragedy that so many of the best playing fields are locked up during school holidays.” Children from deprived areas of the country were found to be disproportionately impacted by the fall in activity levels during the first lockdown.
The Prime Minister was also coming under intensifying pressure on Tuesday night to ease the “unthinkable” impact of restrictions on children’s outdoor activity.
Both Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, and the campaign group Playing Out are calling for ministers to urgently adopt the Scotland model which exempts under 12s from sporting restrictions.
In a letter to Downing Street, 13 academics and child welfare campaigners wrote that “children’s mental and physical health has suffered enormously already and the potential impact of a further extended period without school or normal social interaction is unthinkable”.
In addition to the looser Scottish rules, the Welsh government has stated children are allowed to play outside near home. In England however, the authors wrote, “there is currently no clarity for parents on whether informal outdoor play in public space is permitted under lockdown”.
“Along with the Children’s Commissioner for England, we therefore call on the UK government to provide clear, unambiguous guidance that outdoor play is allowed during lockdown,” wrote leader authors Alice Ferguson and Ingrid Skeels, of Playing Out. The campaigners expressed renewed support for Telegraph Sport‘s Keep Kids Active campaign.
What parents can do to keep children on top of physical and mental health
The Government is facing mounting pressure to develop a child activity plan after access to all grass-roots sport was wiped out by the third lockdown. Amid warnings of a ticking time bomb of child obesity and anxiety, here Telegraph Sport explores how families can attempt to keep their youngsters active over the next six weeks:
What is permitted in terms of child sporting activity?
While under-12s in Scotland are protected by legislation ensuring play and sport can continue, children in England and Wales must fall in line with the blanket outdoor exercise restrictions. Confusion and dismay among parents surrounds the lack of information around children and exercise in the official “National Lockdown Guidance”, which states “you can continue to exercise alone, with one other person or with your household or support bubble”.
The instructions add that “you can exercise in a public outdoor place” in a “childcare bubble where providing childcare” or, “when on your own, with one person from another household”.
The setback comes after outdoor under-18 sport had been ring-fenced following Telegraph Sport’s “Keep Kids Active” campaign last autumn.
However, ministers meeting on Tuesday agreed the reprieve could no longer apply as threat levels were moved to the most severe level as the new virus variant rages.
Where can my children play?
There is a much-needed reprieve for playgrounds, which were initially banned during the first lockdown last spring. Also on the list of permitted outdoor places are “parks, beaches, countryside accessible to the public, forests, public gardens (whether or not you pay to enter them), and the grounds of a heritage site”.
Dr Chris Mackintosh, a senior lecturer in sport development at Manchester Metropolitan University, says the challenges facing parents are tougher than ever during the winter months. However, he says families can still “meet the basic needs of young people” with careful planning for getting outdoors.
“The added benefits of heading outdoors are considerable and a break for mum or dad from screen time adds a further mental and physical health bonus,” he said. “Exploring nature in cities can be hard, but tow paths, cycle ways and canals can be built into part of the daily home curriculum.”
How do the experts suggest I keep my child enthused?
“An important thing to remember is that children are not ‘mini adults’,” Jack Shakespeare, director of children, families and research at ukactive, says. “Children and young people are motivated often by different things – focus on the fun and enjoyment of physical activity.”
Mackintosh says the “first five minutes of physical activities are key”. “It’s the ‘golden window’ to make sure it’s fun, engaging and you’re off your mobile,” he says.
Dr Laura Gale and Dr Leanne Staniford, specialists in active environments and behaviour change, are encouraging families to set aside time in calendars to “get outside and ‘move’ together opposed to staying in and relying on a screen”.
Parents are encouraged to set “activity challenges”, for example a number of skips they have to accumulate. Other tips include visiting different local green spaces so that walks or cycling do not become repetitive; finding “objects in the house that become useful for fitness classes”, and “developing online links with their child’s friends”.
What online resources are there?
Once again Joe Wicks eases the burden by relaunching his live “PE lessons” from Monday on his YouTube channel.
The 34-year-old has already achieved a Guinness World Record, with nearly a million people tuning in live to watch one class last year. Now, with temperatures plunging, his indoor classes are likely to be more popular than ever.
The Youth Sport Trust also says it is “here to support schools, parents and carers every step of the way by providing resources, guidance and disseminating practical ideas and innovative content”. A virtual after-school sports club is among initiatives on the charity’s website (www.youthsporttrust.org/coronavirus-support).
Campaigners are also hopeful that some of the better-resourced independent schools will open up their online classes for all pupils. The NHS has published a “Change4life” activity page with a host of suggestions for indoor and outdoor fitness activity.