Push for playgrounds to reopen amid fears for children’s mental health

Parents taking their children to the park during lockdown had been an “absolute essential lifesaver for many families”, she said.

Professor Danchin called on the government to develop a plan that kept playgrounds open and where parks were regulated so groups of adults were not congregating, symptomatic children were banned, face masks were worn and food and drinks were prohibited.

Infectious disease paediatrician Robert Booy has also questioned the logic behind closing playgrounds, noting the risk of outdoor transmission was “very low”.

“If you put children under curfew, and you’re spending all of your time in cramped conditions with poor ventilation, where’s the transmission going to happen?” he asked. “Seventy-five per cent of transmission occurs right now in people’s homes.”

However, Health Minister Martin Foley doubled down on the ban on Wednesday and said it was justified given the Delta variant was increasingly “finding its way” into unvaccinated groups – including children.

“Some of those cases have been transmitted in outdoor settings … We have to work on the basis of the public health advice and the evidence,” he said.

Young people account for 111 of Victoria’s 246 active COVID-19 cases. Fifty-six are under the age of nine and 55 are between the ages of 10 and 19. Three playgrounds are currently exposure sites, and on Tuesday a skate park in Jacana, in Melbourne’s north, was listed as a tier-2 exposure site.

In the face of a backlash from parents, the government has used the rise in infections among children to justify its restrictions. On Tuesday, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said his team was investigating a potential case of playground transmission and a “more definitive” incident of transmission between students who walked home together.

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However, the government is yet to provide further details of the cases or answer questions from The Age about where and when the suspected transmissions occurred.

On Wednesday evening two playgrounds, both in Broadmeadows, were added to the state’s list of COVID exposure sites.

Tony Bartone, a former president of the Australian Medical Association, said if the government had definitive evidence of outdoor transmission risk between children, closing playgrounds may be necessary.

But he warned the mental health consequences of the pandemic would be long-lasting, and doctors were already seeing a sharp rise in young people struggling due to the cycle of lockdowns and the uncertainty of the pandemic more broadly.

At his clinic, he had seen several young patients “showing signs of being under stress or needing additional support”.

“They’re all showing the need to be referred off to other health professionals or other specialists that I can’t access for love or money because they’re completely booked out,” Dr Bartone said.

Credit:Matt Golding

Melbourne paediatrician and child psychiatrist Alberto Veloso, is also treating a growing number of children, as young as five, who are struggling with anxiety and depression.

“The issues that families are dealing with now are impacting on the children’s development and their emotional development, and we may not see the full impact until some time down the track,” Dr Veloso said. He said while infection protocols were important, they must be balanced with support for families who were struggling.

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For some parents, taking their children to the park may be their only outlet, and “not being able to do this is obviously going to cause more stress for them as a family”.

The ban has also led to tensions between the government and Victoria’s powerful police union, whose boss Wayne Gatt hit out at the fact his already stretched members had been tasked with monitoring playgrounds and “a curfew that no one has welcomed”.

However, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Rick Nugent said it would be “highly unlikely that our members would issue a fine at a playground”, particularly against children, and would instead simply warn people to comply with the rules.

Professor Danchin said policing playgrounds was “very, very challenging”.

She said incentive-driven public health campaigns, encouraging people to work together to do the right thing “to keep parks open for children”, could drive more behavioural change amid growing pandemic fatigue than punitive punishment.

Transmission of the Delta variant of coronavirus among children is a significant concern, with hospitalisations higher than for other variants. However, there is no robust evidence it is causing a greater severity of disease, or higher rates of intensive care or deaths in children.

Data from Canada released two weeks ago suggests a 2.75 times increased risk of children aged under nine being admitted to hospital with Delta compared with previous variants.

Support is available from Lifeline on 131 114. Parents with children struggling to cope can call Parentline, a statewide telephone counselling and support service on 13 22 89.

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