'Our children are suffering' - Debate over Stevenage play area closures continues

Birdseye view of Fairlands play area

People have been seen using parks such as the one at Fairlands, despite the closure imposed by Stevenage Borough Council to help stop the spread of the coronavirus - Credit: SBC

The controversial decision to keep play areas in Stevenage closed has been ignored by some parents, while others continue to call on the council to reconsider.

As we enter the Easter holidays, and the warm weather continues, there have been sightings of children in parks, including Fairlands and St Nicholas - despite locked gates and signs put up by Stevenage Borough Council, intended to keep people out. 

St Nicholas Park Stevenage

St Nicholas Park Stevenage - Credit: Archant

It was announced on January 11 this year that all play areas in the borough would close - a decision which has been reviewed regularly by the council.

The move to close play areas has been criticised by some parents over the last three months

Mum Wendy Walton said: "Children in the town are suffering for this, and it’s looking likely that adults will be able to access indoor gyms before children can access outdoor play areas.

"It’s very upsetting for us parents. Older kids will jump the fences so this makes the council decision even more pointless. Adults are now allowed in each other’s gardens and can use each other’s bathrooms, but children can’t play on the swings."

She also pointed the council to an open letter from Play England, calling on local authorities to open play areas.

In response to a lengthy complaint from a Stevenage mums group, Hertfordshire's Director for Public Health Jim McManus said: "None of us want to place restrictions like these other than when strictly necessary. 

Jim McManus, director of public health for Hertfordshire

Jim McManus, director of public health for Hertfordshire, agreed with the council's decision to close play areas in Stevenage - Credit: Herts county council

Most Read

"We hope to be able to work together to remove these as soon as practicably possible. We wouldn’t do it if we felt there wasn’t a real risk and I think we all want to see a situation where we can lift these.

"SBC made the decision to close playgrounds, a decision they did not take lightly by any means, on the basis of infection risk and having sought my advice on this on several occasions. For the record, I concur with their decision. And none of us feel it’s a decision we want to be in place longer than is strictly necessary."

He went on to cite reasons, such as the current Stevenage infection rate being higher than the rest of the county, household transmission among young people, potential overcrowding and lack of social distancing at playgrounds.

He also said none of what he had said referred to schools "because the nature of close social contact in households and close physical contact in playgrounds is different from that in schools, and schools have worked hard to put infection control measures in place which are impossible in playgrounds if people do not adhere to social distancing".

An SBC councillor added: "The decision on playgrounds was taken because of exceptionally high rates of infection among three particular age groups in Stevenage: 0 to 11, 12 to 16, and 20 to 39 year olds.  

"Although children do not generally become very ill with coronavirus, once we were experiencing the Kent variant in the autumn, the parents’ age group were becoming severely ill.

"This was different to what we had seen with the earlier variant. Our COVID Marshalls and members of the public had seen these affected age groups not following social distancing in our playgrounds and indeed it is difficult to do so because they are small enclosed spaces which are fenced off.

"We have regularly reviewed this decision, most recently at our COVID Emergency Committee last Friday (26 March) and Professor McManus joined our team to review the figures for Stevenage. Unlike every other area in Hertfordshire, our figures were increasing, specifically among age groups that are likely to use our playgrounds as well as their parents.

"As of the March 18 case rates in all these groups were around or in excess of 80 cases per 100,000 population and have continued to rise. This is why our playgrounds remain closed."

Another claimed that Shepalbury Park was "completely full" on Saturday, and said "we are never going to cut the rate that's rising in Stevenage without getting the message out. Too many people are so unaware."

Coronavirus cases in Stevenage in the latest week have risen again. There were 80 new cases between March 19 and March 25, up 18 on the week before. 

Per 100,000 people, there were 91 cases. The average area in England has 42. 

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter