'They need their space' - Calls for older children to mix in lockdown
- Credit: ANDREW OLDRIDGE
"As soon as he went back to school he had a spring in his step."
Those are the words of single mother Michelle Sheridan, who immediately noticed her nine-year-old son's mood lift when returning to school part-time in January due to her being a key worker.
Mrs Sheridan, who is manager of the Marks and Spencer Foodhall on Longwater Retail Park and lives off Bowthorpe Road in Norwich, initially juggled homeschooling during the 2020 lockdowns with Cameron's father but admitted her son needed more interaction.
And due to concerns over loss of social interactions and the fact that schools are open to all pupils, she backs a call from campaigners and children's rights experts for Boris Johnson to lift the ban on children aged five to 11 being able to play together safely outside.
Since January 6, across England, and last year in places under tier 3 rules, the law has stated that only two individuals can meet from different households.
Children under five are exempt but youngsters aged five to 11 are included in the numbers of people meeting.
Mrs Sheridan, 42, said: "Going out to exercise with your parents is not the same as meeting with friends. It is hard on everyone. Cameron perked up when he was at school. I think a lifting of the rule on children being able to meet would be beneficial."
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Mother-of-three, Liz Humphries, 43, from Constitution Hill, Norwich, who works for the Norwich Mumbler parenting website, believed the rules on children being counted on outdoor meetings should be relaxed.
She said: "The children are less likely to be affected by coronavirus and more likely to be affected by not seeing their friends."
The content writer said her children had been resilient during the lockdowns but their relationships had changed because they were constantly on top of each other.
"They need their space," added Mrs Humphries who praised technology for keeping young people in communication with each other.
She had noticed a change in her nine-year-old's mood adding: "She was quite sociable before but she was nervous about going back to school. I'm thinking of the effects further down the line. It has been difficult."
But Norwich Mumbler founder and mother-of-three, Katrin Oldridge, 35, from Sprowston, said she and some other parents were wary of restrictions lifting on five to 11-year-olds being able to meet more freely.
Mrs Oldridge said: "I want to be cautious. The mood in general is lifting but as schools are back but I don't want to go too fast and push things back in terms of restrictions being lifted. I don't want schools to close again. We must not run before we can walk."
She understood why parents wanted their children to play more with others from a mental health concern and admitted that the latest lockdown was harder on everyone.
Penny Sheppard, headteacher of Queen's Hill Primary and Nursery School in Costessey, said: "While I completely understand why people are keen for children to be able to play together in outdoor areas for their mental health and wellbeing, at the moment it is really important for us to keep to the guidelines.
"Children who are currently in school are really enjoying being back talking and playing with their friends in their bubbles. As a school we are following strict guidelines and keeping the class bubbles or year groups separate during outdoor play and lunch times.
"If children are able to play with others outside of their bubbles at the park, then I do think the risk assessments in schools would need to also be reviewed to ensure consistency."
One of the groups which wrote the letter to the prime minister was community interest company Playing Out, which pushes for greater opportunities for children to play outside.
Matt White, from Playing Out Norfolk, said: "It is unjust that adults are given more freedom than children. The government has never said that play counts as exercise but that is how children exercise. It is criminal to deny them socialisation. Play should be encouraged. There could be a legacy of long term mental health issues."
Mental health advocate Sir Norman Lamb said: "The idea of relaxing the rules on children should be considered favourably but we should be seeking advice from scientists. We are in a delicate position and must not assume we have defeated the virus.
"It is likely the legacy of this pandemic will fall most heavily on young people."
Sir Norman said more young people were experiencing eating and sleeping problems and feelings of self-harm during the lockdown and it was important to nip mental health problems in the bud within schools.
He added: "Most will recover but there will be minority of young people who find it difficult."
His comments come as experts warned of mental health concerns among young people due to the lockdown in the British Medical Journal.
A government spokesperson said: “It is right that we prioritised the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of young people and made opening schools the first step as we cautiously ease out of lockdown.
"Schools and afterschool clubs are now open and vulnerable children can take part in other children’s activities in all circumstances.
“We fully recognise the importance of exercise to children and know that the risk of transmission is greater indoors than outdoors, which is why playgrounds have also remained open during the national lockdown and outdoor exercise and recreation is permitted.”