More than 50 Northern Ireland sports people have signed a letter urging the Northern Ireland Executive to give “immediate consideration” to opening outdoor sport again to children.
The letter says evidence points to youth sport continuing in many countries “without adverse effects”.
Ex-Armagh GAA player Aidan O’Rourke said the need to allow children to undertake sport again was “immediate”.
“The impact on physical and mental health is pretty drastic,” he said.
Speaking to BBC Northern Ireland after the release of the letter whose signatories also include Stuart Dallas and Gary Hamilton from the football world, former Ireland rugby international Stephen Ferris, Tyrone GAA legend Peter Canavan and Ireland hockey star Shirley McCay, O’Rourke said the situation “will continue to get worse” unless the First and Deputy First Ministers adopted a changed approach.
“We’re asking them to consider a bit of nuance around their approach to this – not to throw a blanket over our children in the same way as adult sport potentially is at the moment. We think there are steps that they can take pretty quickly,” added O’Rourke, who manages Armagh GAA’s Orchard Academy.
‘Children in front of screens all day’
“Since this campaign has started, the number of parents and coaches who have contacted us has been phenomenal.
“We didn’t realise the numbers of people that were struggling with this issue. Behavioural issues at home, personalities disappearing, young people sitting in front of screens all day, all evening.”
Glenavon football manager Hamilton told the BBC that the continuing shutdown of children and youth sport had left his own two children “mentally struggling”.
“They are asking me every single week ‘Daddy when are we going back playing football and see our friends?’,” said the former Northern Ireland international.
Hamilton said the absence of sport was having “physical health and mental health” impact on the young.
“You have health issues in terms of diet and keeping your weight down.
“My kids very rarely played computer games but all of a sudden, there’s nothing else to do and they are sitting playing computers all day long.
“For me it’s so sad. I totally understand the danger of Covid but before Christmas we were back at getting the kids back into the academy and into football and training again.
‘Sport’s positive cross-community impact’
“It had to be done in a safe environment and wasn’t maybe as enjoyable for the kids but they were still able to train together while keeping social distance.
“You just saw the difference in the kids for a couple of weeks when it was allowed. Their wee faces were lighting up. They were back with their mates.
“With football there’s a cross-community aspect as well with kids coming together which is great.”
The letter, whose other signatories include former boxer Paddy Barnes, Armagh GAA manager Kieran McGeeney and Coleraine football boss Oran Kearney, says the “curtailing of outdoor youth sport is unnecessary and not supported by either science or best practice”.
“During more than seven months in the past year, children here will have been prohibited from playing sport outside at a time when they were also excluded from school, and, by natural extension, school PE,” stated the letter.
“There are no confirmed transmissions of Covid-19 through participation in outdoor sport.
“The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance acknowledged that he is ‘not aware’ of Covid-19 transmission between children playing football outdoors and the Westminster Government have made provision for this understanding in their restrictions.
“Up to and including tier four restrictions in England include exemptions for organised under-18 and disabled outdoor sport to continue.”
— to www.bbc.co.uk