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Parents across Britain may rightly be celebrating outside this Saturday, given news that as well as pubs, bars and restaurants reopening, so too are children’s playgrounds.
The government revealed plans to substantially relax lockdown measures in England as of July 4. And while swimming pools, beauty salons and nightclubs remain shut, outdoor play areas will be open for families who have been forced to steer clear since March 23.
It’s worth checking in your local park, though, as some councils are keeping them closed a while longer. But, if yours is open, it might look a little different.
The government has issued guidance for those managing playgrounds, which states a range of suggested measures, including: signs should be put up to remind people of social distancing, no food or drink should be consumed in the area, there should be limits on the maximum number of people on the playground, and they should use adjacent space for queues or waiting areas.
But just because we can now let our kids play on public swings and slides – does it mean we should?
Firstly, what are the risks to children of Covid-19?
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine and expert in infectious diseases based at the University of East Anglia, tells HuffPost UK it’s important to remember the risk of children contracting the virus is minimal – particularly outdoors where there’s better ventilation, and the virus can be killed by UV light.
“In terms of risk to the children themselves, that’s probably quite low,” he says. “So far, there have been just three deaths in children under 10 years old in England and Wales. That’s three too many, of course, but, given the vast majority of children in that age group, the numbers are very low.”
Great Ormond Street Hospital states the latest evidence suggests that although children do develop Covid-19, very few children develop severe symptoms, even if they have an underlying health condition. Adults – particularly older adults – are far more likely to be seriously ill from complications of the virus.
So, what’s the issue with playgrounds?
Hunter says part of the confusion for parents about whether or not to take their children to public playgrounds is due to a wider confusion about whether – and how frequently – coronavirus is passed from one child to another. And we don’t know the answer to this for certain.
“There’s evidence that child-to-child transmission probably doesn’t happen very often,” says Hunter. “Most children who get the infection get it from adults.”
The issues with playgrounds, he believes, depends on what the mums, dads, or grandparents are doing while the children are playing. “If the carers are behaving themselves, and the place isn’t too busy, the risk is quite low,” says Hunter. “If you go and it’s busy – and other mums and dads are ‘in your face’ a lot of the time, and won’t socially distance – it’s probably not a good idea.”
Hunter says a playground trip comes down to personal judgement and responsibility. “If a parent is particularly ill, or you’re sharing the house with elderly parents, that adds an extra dimension to the judgement you have to make,” he says.
“But overall: outdoor playgrounds – providing they don’t get overburdened with people and the parents behave sensibly – shouldn’t be a particularly high risk.”
It’s about weighing up the risks, then?
Mark Hardy, chair of The Association of Play Industries, which has been liaising with the government over the guidelines, believes so. “You have to try and take a risk-benefit approach,” he tells HuffPost UK.
Hardy says parents should weigh up the risks of children not being allowed to play out, versus the benefit of letting them out – and in his view, the benefit “far outweighs the risk”.
“We have an obesity crisis in kids – and if you don’t get them out and active as kids, they won’t be active as adults,” he warns. “If kids have got used to sitting on a sofa, playing with a device, they’ve got out the habit of running around. And habits last a lifetime. That’s a massive issue for society as a whole.”
If you want to take your children to a play area, Hardy recommends taking hand sanitiser to wash their child’s hands when they come away – as well as washing their own hands. “It’s about personal responsibility,” he adds.
How else can you minimise risk?
The government’s guidance issued to those managing playgrounds includes advice on how those visiting may be able to minimise risk.
- Only having one family member accompanying a child,
- Advising people not to touch their faces, and to cough or sneeze into a tissue or arm when a tissue is not available,
- Promoting cleaning of equipment by parents, guardians and carers, particularly where there are clear touch points such as swing rockers, see saws, machine handles or exercise bars,
- Encouraging parents to bring hand sanitiser gel or wipes to clean their children’s hands,
- Encouraging hand hygiene with including washing/sanitising hands more often than usual, particularly at the beginning and end of play,
- Reminding adults to make sure children do not put their mouths on equipment or their hands in their mouths,
- Promoting and remind users, parents, guardians and carers of the need for social distancing.