Three well known sporting figures in Fermanagh have put their names to a letter sent to the First and Deputy First Minister voicing the frustrations felt at the “neglect of youth sport” and the associated impact on children’s wellbeing during the ongoing Covid pandemic.

Ballinamallard manager and teacher, Harry McConkey; former Fermanagh GAA footballer and gym owner, Ryan McCluskey; and athletics coach and teacher, Francis Shaw were among other prominent sportspeople who signed the letter which states that “the curtailing of outdoor youth sport is now unnecessary and not supported by either science of best practice”.

The letter states that while there is an absolute necessity to avoid transmission of the virus, outdoor sport under adequate controls can be carried out safely.

Francis Shaw said his reasons for signing the letter are that: “I strongly believe that the measures taken to curb the spread of Covid have had a hugely detrimental impact on our young people, an impact disproportionate to the risks science tells us the virus poses to those same young people. A classic case of the cure being worse than the illness.”

Missing out

“The absence of sport is just one of the many things our young people have lost over the last 12 months and undoubtedly it is, for many young people, a significant part of the whole jigsaw of key opportunities and moments in their lives that they have had to forego.”

He says young people missing out on important milestones and events during the last year is having a negative effect on both physical and mental welfare and the uncertainty going forward adds to the problem.

“Some will criticise people like myself as not having a regard for public health but on the contrary we are looking at community health in the medium to long term and providing a balanced risks- benefits analysis which indicates huge damage to the physical, mental and social health of our communities if we continue to focus solely on Covid. We are not calling for thousands of spectators in stadiums next month, rather a return to structured, controlled outdoor training and competition at grassroots level and the protection of same in the event of future lockdowns.” Francis believes the chances of politicians listening to the calls for youth sport to resume are slim and hit out at the failures of the government failure in other areas of society throughout the pandemic.

“They talk about following the science, yet it has been repeatedly shown that outdoor transmission of Covid is negligible, even more so among children, and while they are quite happy to consider cramming hundreds of children into school buses and poorly ventilated classrooms again in the next few weeks, many of these same children face over 18 months without a competitive outdoor sports fixture by the time next September rolls around. Their indecision and ineptitude is staggering, but unsurprising given voting patterns in this part of the world, and sadly we get, and will continue to get, what we deserve, poorly thought out decisions, usually taken too late, and as a result and endless series of spikes in infections, hospitalisations and rolling lockdowns.

“It is time to get our children out and active with their friends again, before we cause irreversible damage, damage which will create just as many problems for our NHS going forward, as those we imposed lockdown to avoid or at least minimise.”

Impact assessment

Ballinamallard manager, Harry McConkey said he was happy to sign the letter from the perspective that he feels there has not been an impact assessment carried out on the level of transmission of Covid-19 through participation in outdoor sport.

“That’s a concern from people in sport and government bodies need to be really active on this and do as much research and gain data and back up what they say.

“When people say we have to stick to the science we are all for that in we are making this as safe as possible. What the letter is intimating there hasn’t been enough data collected and research done.

“We are trying to be a bit of a voice for the young people and say if we can back to sport in the right way and conduct ourselves in the right way.

“We have to have to a pathway back and the sooner we can get on that and gain confidence I believe for the better.”

Former Fermanagh captain, Ryan McCluskey added: “It’s important that sports do return not just from a fitness and health perspective.

“It’s taught myself so much in terms of how to manage everything in life.

“I can’t stress the importance of getting back as soon as possible. I hope the government has sound evidence behind their reasons and get things back up and running.”

The letter, which was sent on February 10, has yet to receive a response from the First or Deputy First Minister.