The Government has promised to prioritise the reopening of community sport when lockdown measures are eased following mounting support on Wednesday night for Telegraph Sport’s “Keep Kids Active” campaign.
Addressing Telegraph Sport’s five key asks, a joint statement from the Department for Education and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport outlined the vital importance of exercise and pledged that “gyms and community sport facilities” would be a national priority as soon as safely possible.
It follows a groundswell of backing for the campaign from leading athletes, politicians, sports administrators and governing bodies, including Lord Coe, Laura Kenny, Baroness Campbell and the Youth Sports Trust.
Coe, the double Olympic 1,500m champion and president of World Athletics, stressed that “getting children active and introduced to sport in their formative years is habit-forming” and called for “a more structured approach and commitment to sport in these years”.
Kenny, whose son Albie is among the millions of children whose sports activities have suddenly stopped again, stressed her wholehearted support and also the critical importance of children staying active during another indefinite lockdown.
Telegraph Sport launched its campaign last year and, with most children again facing a prolonged period out of school, is now calling for the Government to:
- Implement a mandatory virtual physical education curriculum.
- Create a centralised online hub with age-related activities and advice for parents.
- Prioritise opening up kids’ activity at the earliest opportunity.
- Deliver a plan to put Physical Education on a par with core subjects when schools return.
- Open school facilities as community hubs during holidays to help close the social divide.
Lockdown guidance in Scotland has allowed under-12s to continue playing sport and socialising outdoors but, in England, children must follow the same lockdown rules as adults.
Telegraph Sport is calling for a sustained national plan to prioritise physical activity for children, not just during the lockdown but also when schools return and rules are eased. The campaign was backed on Wednesday by two former sports ministers, Tracey Crouch and Gerry Sutcliffe, as well as an array of influential MPs and sporting figures.
“The Telegraph is right to focus on the importance of keeping kids active,” said Crouch. “Sport benefits both physical and mental well-being – habits of lifetime activity are formed in their early years.”
Sutcliffe said that “children need exercise to assist their physical development and relieve stress” and urged the Government to deliver on Telegraph Sport’s requests.
Jonathan Edwards, the triple-jump world record holder, said that the nation needed to “pay far greater attention to the health of our children” and that he was “delighted to support this important campaign”.
Ben Bradley, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for sport, promised to push for school sports facilities to be opened up to communities when restrictions allow.
Other backers include Olympic athlete Jo Pavey, English Football League chairman Rick Parry, Rugby Football League chairman Simon Johnson, former Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, and UK athletics chief Jo Coates.
Research by the charity Made By Sport found that a quarter of UK sports clubs are at risk, and its chair, Justin King, warned that a generation would be failed if community clubs were not backed financially. “Many simply will not survive a third lockdown – it is sadly those in the most disadvantaged areas of the UK who are most at risk,” he said.
The Government did maintain its £320 million annual commitment to the PE and Sport Premium for primary schools during this academic year and published its School Sport and Activity Action plan in July 2019. A range of advice and online resources have also been created by organisations including Sport England and the Youth Trust.
“We remain clear on just how important exercise is to young people’s health and well-being, whilst staying safe at home,” said a Government spokesperson. That is why outdoor exercise within households, or with one other person from another household or your support bubble, is still permitted once a day in your local area.
“Sport England have provided a range of online resources through their ‘Join the Movement’ campaign, alongside the Department for Education promoting advice and support, to encourage pupils to stay active before, during and after the school day.”
Appeal for all under-12s to be free to play sport
One of Nicola Sturgeon’s key advisers on lockdown policy has called for Scotland’s under-12s sporting reprieve to be extended across the UK.
Up to 13 children of primary school age can continue to gather outdoors with two adult supervisors north of the border thanks to legislation passed last July. In stark contrast in England, children of all ages must fall in line with a blanket ban on all organised grass-roots sport for the next six weeks at least.
Professor Devi Sridhar, a member of the Scottish Government advisory group, told Telegraph Sport that data shows she was right to champion the reprieve to ministers.
“Scotland was the first to let children play in groups outside, and we didn’t see any rise in infections from that or clusters within kids,” said the chair of global public health at Edinburgh University Medical School.
Prof Sridhar was vehemently supportive of Telegraph Sport’s “Keep Kids Active” campaign, especially the call on Government to prioritise opening up activity at the earliest opportunity.
Her advice in Scotland played a significant part in the First Minister announcing the easement for under-12s in July. Sturgeon said then that she hoped the changes would make life “a little bit easier and a little bit more fun” for children over the summer holidays, and it was confirmed on Monday that the allowance would continue through lockdown.
That announcement prompted the Children’s Commissioner for England and a host of child welfare groups to call for the same measures across the UK. In addition to the Scottish rules, the Welsh government has stated children are allowed to play outside near home.
Grass-roots tennis, golf and fishing are also subject to the whims of geography. Separate petitions to allow both golf and tennis to continue in England have gathered pace online in recent days.
Prof Sridhar is far from a proponent of looser restrictions in general – she says she has been described as “Dr Doom” and “Mrs Lockdown”. However, she says the idea of the exemption for under-12s is that the benefits outweigh the risks of letting “kids be kids, and giving them as much normality as possible”.
“We have known for a while now that children under the age of 12 transmit less than adults,” Prof Sridhar said, although she recognised there were “questions over the new variant, which means transmissibility might have changed”.
“The idea is really to put children first. Sport is obviously an essential part of childhood, not only for physical but for mental health,” she says. “And so you are balancing the harms of Covid versus the benefits of physical activity. It just seems like as much as possible we should be allowing children to be outside and to play in groups, especially in younger children.”
Both Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, and the campaign group Playing Out have been impressed by Scotland’s foresight in developing a clear policy around children’s activity and play.
In a letter to Downing Street, Playing Out and 11 other 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”.
Prof Gabriel Scally, president of the epidemiology and public health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, also told Telegraph Sport the infection risks associated with outdoor sport were “minimal” for young children.
Prof Sridhar says “I think this is all about balancing various priorities and considerations”. “It’s like the schools issue – there are no easy answers,” she adds. “There are just benefits, harms, risks, and how you set them and balance them. But I think there’s such a little risk from children playing outside together that the benefits outweigh the harms in my view. If it was indoors I’d have a different perspective.”