Play area closures: 'Actions of the few have consequences for the many'

Play areas have been closed by Stevenage Borough Council due to rising COVID-19 infection rates

Play areas have been closed by Stevenage Borough Council due to rising COVID-19 infection rates - Credit: Archant

Reporter and parent Louise McEvoy gives her view on the debate over play area closures in Stevenage.

It’s a good few years since I put my head above the parapet to express my own opinion in the Comet, but I just can’t hold my noise over this one.

As a parent to two young children and living in Stevenage, my heart sank when Stevenage Borough Council announced on January 11 that the town's public play areas were closing indefinitely following a rapid rise in COVID cases - including in the 0-11 age group.

They have remained closed because the town's infection rate has remained high, but the start of the Easter holidays we have seen many parents lifting their children over the padlocked gates for some fun in the sun.

If social media is anything to go by, the main justification stems from drawing similarity to children playing in the school playground with their friends. That's like comparing apples and oranges.

Schools have worked hard to put infection control measures in place, including but not limited to creating bubbles, allocating these bubbles specific sets of equipment that are not shared, ensuring good hand hygiene and implementing social distancing where possible.

Public play areas are free-for-alls, with children congregating from schools all over town.

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Play equipment is a hotbed for germs at the best of times, with young children coughing and spluttering, picking their noses, slobbering and getting generally sweaty. Hand-to-mouth contact among children and a lack of hand hygiene means there is inevitably a risk of infection.

There is an indignation from these rule-breaking parents that Stevenage play areas are closed, while those in North Hertfordshire and other districts in the county are open.

Stevenage has the highest COVID infection rate in Hertfordshire, standing at 92.2 per 100,000 resident population on Monday - well above the Herts average of 35.6 and the UK average of 56.2. That is why our play areas remain closed.

The solution for some is to take their children to play areas outside of Stevenage - to North Hertfordshire, where the infection rate is 40.4, for instance. This is not only breaching COVID measures, but it is essentially being reckless with other people's lives. Children with COVID are often asymptomatic, so you will never know the devastation left in your wake.

There are those who refuse to conform on the basis the closure of play areas is not a central government directive, but the whim of the council.

The government has given local authorities the power to take a range of actions in order to keep infections down, including closing play areas and keeping them closed, and every council is making decisions based on their epidemiology. The closure of Stevenage's play areas is under weekly review.

What does the council have to gain from keeping the play areas closed, other than trying to reduce the rate of infection and keep people safe? If anything, it's headache, particularly for the leader, Sharon Taylor, who is standing for re-election to Hertfordshire County Council.

This flagrant disregard for COVID measures, ultimately put in place for our safety and to reduce the risk of infection, is a slap in the face for teachers working tirelessly to keep our children safe in school, and for NHS staff, who are working relentlessly to the point of exhaustion to treat infected patients.

I'm sure many of the parents hoisting their children over the padlocked park gates were standing on their doorsteps clapping for the NHS workers not too long ago. It's dumbfounding.

I also question the message these parents are giving their children - that it's acceptable to break rules and to enter a restricted area, which could lead to dangerous consequences later in life.

There are so many ways to entertain your children without taking them to a play area, especially with restrictions now eased to allow up to six people, or two households, in your garden. If that's not an option, take a frisbee, kite, football, cricket set - the list is endless - and find an open space.

We all want to see a situation where restrictions can be lifted, but the actions of the few disregarding COVID measures will have consequences for the many.

If infection rates remain high in Stevenage - as they surely will if selfish people continue to flout the rules - then tough restrictions will remain in place for longer. We need to pull together and work collectively towards the common goal. United we stand, divided we fall.

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