The ban on children playing together outdoors in England must be lifted as it is discriminatory and potentially unlawful, lawyers and children’s groups have said.

In a letter to Boris Johnson in the week that schools were allowed to reopen, family groups reported signs of mental distress and poor health among young children who have missed playing and socialising.

Since 6 January across England, and last year in places under tier 3 rules, the law has stated that only two individuals can meet from different households. Under-fives are exempt but campaigners say that children aged five to 11, who are not old enough to meet a friend alone, have been severely affected by the rules.


How England’s Covid lockdown will be lifted


Step 1, part 1

All pupils and college students return fully.
People can meet one other person outside, not just for exercise. Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor.
The “stay at home” order will otherwise stay in place.

Step 1, part 2

Outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens.
Outdoor sport for children and adults will be allowed.
The official stay at home order will end, but people will be encouraged to stay local.
People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

Step 2

The official outline plan states that the next steps will rely on data, and the dates given mean “no earlier than”. In step two, there will be a reopening of non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and public buildings such as libraries and museums.
Most outdoor venues can open, including pubs and restaurants but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.

Also reopening will be settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing.
Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open but again people can only go alone or with their own household.
Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities, but only for one household.
Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.

Step 3

Again with the caveat “no earlier than 17 May”, depending on data, vaccination levels and current transmission rates.

Step 3 entails that most mixing rules are lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens.
Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households.
Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.

For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer.
Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.

This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a separate review.

Step 4

No earlier than 21 June, all legal limits will be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.

Peter Walker Political correspondent

Jennifer Twite, of Just for Kids Law, said the rules were challengeable under the Equality Act 2010 and the European convention on human rights.

“The current guidance in England unfairly discriminates against children and disproportionately impacts single parents. Under the one-to-one rule, adults and older children have been able to meet a friend for exercise if they can do so alone but this leaves children who are over five unable to see anyone. This leaves single parents, who are more likely to be women, also unable to take advantage of the rule because they can’t bring their children if they meet another adult.”

Government guidelines have also stressed that playgrounds, while open, must not be used for socialising.

In a letter to the prime minister, the groups Just for Kids Law, Playing Out and Play England point to the rules in Scotland that have always allowed under-12s to mix with friends outdoors. On Monday, Nicola Sturgeon relaxed rules specifically for teenagers so they can meet in groups of four.

Ingrid Skeels is co-director of the group Playing Out in Bristol. She said the rules needed to be changed urgently, not at the end of March. “Every day counts and the current ban gives a wrong and fearful message that outdoor play and socialising isn’t safe. “

She said the group had heard from many parents who have been too afraid of being fined or told off for breaking rules to take their children outside.

“The government has never clarified that play is exercise. We know from speaking to families this had a very bad impact and we have seen that the families most fearful of breaking the rules are the most disadvantaged ones.”

Alex Foy lives in a flat in south London and said she felt she should be keeping her son, Jamie, at home as much as possible.

“The rules made it clear we should stay indoors. I know a walk is acceptable but kids need other kids. Taking him to the park without other children made him even more disheartened and lonely so we avoided it. We did our exercises running up and down the stairs in our flats most days. He was a brave boy but he is a sociable child and he really suffered, he became withdrawn and looked unwell.

“He was so excited for school but school isn’t play. He urgently needs to just be himself in a space with other children he cares about.”

Daisy Peters, a single mother in Devon, added her views to the letter, saying: “My five-year-old is an only child and she has been badly affected by lack of socialising. Her behaviour has become challenging, she is far less cheerful. Her sleep has also become disturbed.”

Daisy Peters with her daughter, Lily, pictured at home in Chillaton, Devon.
Daisy Peters with her daughter, Lily. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Shani, a project worker in Bristol, contacted Playing Out because she was so concerned about the impact the rules were having on local families.

“Children have been very subdued with us, many have barely been leaving the house because their parents felt it wasn’t allowed. We fear what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg.”

A government spokesperson said: “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 after-school clubs are now open.

“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.”

Last month ministers were forced to backtrack over guidance that stated only children without gardens could use playgrounds, after an incident where children were told to go home by police while building a snowman.

This content first appear on the guardian

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