Ban on outdoor sports in NI left children 'struggling'

Children in Northern Ireland struggling to cope during the pandemic were denied the "release valve" of outdoor sports, the High Court heard today.

Thursday, 20th May 2021, 4:21 pm
Updated Thursday, 20th May 2021, 4:23 pm

Lawyers for an eight-year-old boy from Magherafelt claimed the restrictions could harm young people's physical and mental welfare for years to come.

Proceedings centre on the ban on children playing sports outside imposed by the Stormont Executive as part of efforts to combat Covid-19.

Despite claims that the easing of restrictions has rendered the case academic, a judge was told uncertainty around the virus could lead to similar prohibitions in future.

Twelve-year-old girl misses playing football, court told.

In a case taken against the Department of Health, the schoolboy's legal team alleged a breach of human rights.

The ban was discriminatory, with adults allowed to continue elite sports, according to their case.

It was contended that there is no evidence to show the risk of transmitting Covid is increased by children playing sport outside.

Instead, they claimed, the restrictions are contributing to a crisis in young people's well-being.

Fiona Doherty QC, for the schoolboy, read a series of testimonies from other children about the personal impact on them.

One eleven-year-old boy described his unhappiness at being prevented from playing golf, and feeling like he was treated differently from professionals.

A girl aged seven told of her sadness at not getting to play Gaelic games.

Another twelve-year-old girl recounted how much she missed football, her "escape from stress".

Ms Doherty said: "Sport is a release valve for children from whatever issues they have, and it's something they didn't have."

The situation was worsened by the prolonged closure of schools, she insisted.

"Not only were children being denied their usual activities, but they were denied in circumstances where they didn't have the normal outlet for social interaction and meeting people," the barrister submitted.

"These restrictions should never have been entertained for children, but at a point in time when schools were closed there was a very real need for mitigation.

"This was one of the prime possibilities for mitigation in relation to children, and it wasn't taken."

A further ground of challenge involves claims that Northern Ireland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma, was not included in the decision-making process.

Ms Doherty argued there had been no serious attempt to alleviate "terrible, ongoing problems of children's mental health".

Citing evidence to back her case, she added: "The consequences on their lives may be felt for years to come."

Originally listed for hearing in March, the case was put back after the ban was eased to allow sporting activities to resume on a restricted basis.

Tony McGleenan QC, for the Department, told the court the situation remains "fluid".

Further easing measures are expected from next Monday, with Mr McGleenan predicting: "It will have some impact on sports generally."

He argued that the regulations were imposed during an historic and unique situation as the authorities attempted to stop the spread of the virus and prevent hospitals being overwhelmed.

"These circumstances are unlikely to coalesce in exactly the same way again," counsel said. "The case is now academic."

The hearing continues.


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