The Covid-19 pandemic is a watershed moment in our times. The pandemic has not only upended the way we live our daily lives but it has also become a catalyst that has led us to prioritise health and safety above all else.
In the process, unprecedented measures have been implemented and England is now in the throes of another nationwide lockdown, with families again forced to keep their distance, households prevented from mixing, and people unable to work.
While the restrictions are intended to curb the spread of the virus, they are also producing dire and unintended consequences.
Lord Sebastian Coe has urged the Government to act now and get children back playing sport
Perhaps we all assumed that everyone across the nation would face the same hardships during the lockdown. However, many didn’t fully appreciate that it would end up hitting hard some of our poorest communities, particularly children living in poverty.
A study by UCL found that a fifth of schoolchildren had done little to no home learning over the summer term, perhaps because of a lack of access to the internet, laptops or computers at home.
What has now begun to emerge, is a mental health epidemic among our children, which we can’t afford to ignore. The NSPCC recently revealed that calls to ChildLine reached nearly 43,000 between March and October, with counsellors supporting children who were feeling isolated, anxious and insecure after being cut off from their networks of social support such as friends and teachers.
It is these sobering statistics that should spur us into action. We, and in particular the Government, have an opportunity to fix the problem before it becomes overwhelming. We must find ways to balance the restrictions with solutions that can help preserve the mental health and wellbeing of our youngest and most vulnerable.
Sport is an obvious solution. Ensuring children receive regular physical education, structured exercise and a means to run around and play during the lockdown can lead to unquestioned mental health benefits; improving self-confidence, nurturing positive relationships among peers, bolstering their mood, fostering social cohesion in communities and of course staying fit and healthy.
I’ve said it before. Sport is the hidden social worker in many of our neighbourhoods. Disadvantaged families often rely on support that sport gives them, whether it’s in the form of an after-school club, or a charity that caters for the young in the community.
The impact of lockdown on children cannot be underestimated, physically and psychologically
Unfortunately, current Government restrictions have meant that many charities and community clubs have been restricted or prevented from providing that support to the people that need it most at a time when they need it the most.
Charities such as Greenhouse Sports, and their home the Greenhouse Centre, which I’m proud to support through the Sebastian Coe Charitable Foundation, provide long-term sports coaching and mentorship programs to children living in poverty and are indisputably vital at the moment.
And crucially, they have continued to operate through the pandemic, though at a very reduced level when schools were closed, and proved they can provide sports and activity for young people in an engaging and safe way, under the restrictions.
With any restriction or sustained reduction in this dedicated provision and access to sport and activity, children living in poverty will experience added strain to their mental health and physical fitness.
Some 24 per cent of children from poorer backgrounds as opposed to 8 per cent from higher-earning backgrounds cited their health and fitness decreasing during the first lockdown. This is largely because disadvantaged populations don’t have easy access to safe and communal green or open space in their neighbourhoods, let alone a back garden where they can play.
With winter looming, afternoons getting darker, and the only available way to exercise being outdoors, the everyday activities that help make life during lockdown bearable for our young people have been worryingly restricted.
Government restrictions have prevented child and sporting charities from supporting children
Charities are often a lifeline for young children, and never more so than in these trying times. Greenhouse Sports, which operates in approximately 50 schools in the most deprived areas of London, provide a fantastic support outlet to those schools, operating under the strain of a Covid-compromised environment, with many teaching staff now pre-occupied with firefighting the practical problems of just staying open.
The Greenhouse coaches and their regular sessions give an important outlet of safe physical activity and a well-being release for students whose education has been so disrupted in 2020, and for whom pressures in all areas of their lives have only increased.
Greenhouse Sports are just but one provider in London. Right now the Government should make it a national education priority to keep our school children active every school day, to help them better cope physically and mentally with this situation. There are many organisations and individuals with ideas, facilities and resources that can help Government accomplish this.
I was an MP, and for a short period a Government Whip — I know the pressure on all our politicians, and the coronavirus is the biggest challenge most will ever confront.
But there has to be proportionality. Many charities and local sports or community clubs operate in a very similar fashion to schools, with vetted, qualified coaches and mentors engaging with children for hours that stretch beyond the average school day.
Lord Coe is calling for the Government to think again about limiting access to exercise
They facilitate exercise and improve health and provide support for our youngest when they need it most. There seem to be very few sensible arguments for closing down these charities and club operations when schools remain open. Children being together is either safe, or it is not.
Those of us that operate in sport and have been staging events, have been doing it successfully and with social distancing. World Athletics successfully hosted events this year across the Diamond League and the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships last month.
So why can’t charities and community clubs, who have proven they can open safely on a much smaller operation, continue to put on sports safely for the benefit of our less-at-risk children?
I’m really hoping our MPs rethink the impact of restricting extra-curricular exercise and sport from the lives of young people, particularly in our poorest communities for which access to sport can often be a very thin but vital line.
Across the country there is proof that we can conduct children’s sport safely, without being cavalier or causing greater stress on the NHS. It’s a problem that can and must be quickly addressed, or we risk an entire generation’s mental and physical health.
Sebastian Coe is an ambassador of London charity, Greenhouse Sports, which provides mentoring and sports coaching to young people in some of the capital’s poorest communities.