Response re Stevenage Playgrounds
To: Anita Grant, Chair of Trustees, Play England
Re: Stevenage Playgrounds
Thank you for your email of 30 March 2021. The disappointment of Play England is noted, however the circumstances around this decision is outlined below which you may have been unaware of before sending your email.
The decision on Stevenage playgrounds was taken in consultation with the Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire, Professor Jim McManus. It was taken because of exceptionally high rates of infection among three particular age groups in Stevenage: 0 - 11, 12 – 16, and 20 - 39 year olds. Although children do not generally become very ill with Coronavirus, once we were experiencing the Kent variant in the autumn, the parents’ age group were becoming severely ill.
This was different to what we had seen with the earlier variant. Our Covid Marshalls and members of the public had seen these affected age groups not following social distancing in our playgrounds and indeed it is difficult to do so because they are small enclosed spaces which are fenced off to keep dogs out. With Covid rates soaring at the end of last year and the start of this year, we had to take a difficult decision to close the playgrounds and outdoor gyms.
We have regularly reviewed this decision, most recently at our Covid Emergency Committee last Friday (26 March) and Professor McManus joined our team to review the figures for Stevenage. Unlike every other area in Hertfordshire, our figures were increasing, specifically amongst age groups that are likely to use our playgrounds (0-11 and 12-16) as well as their parents (25-39). As of the 18 March case rates in all these groups were around or in excess of 80 cases per 100,000 population and have continued to rise. This is why our playgrounds remain closed.
We review this decision on a weekly basis always based on the data we have and the advice of our Director of Public Health, as listed below.
- The case figures in Stevenage remain higher than those in the rest of the county and the gap between Stevenage and the rest of the county has not yet narrowed.
- Household transmission, and particularly transmission from younger age groups to older age groups, continues. In particular, our surveillance data shows that the 0-11 and 12-16 age groups continue to increase in Stevenage at levels we are not seeing replicated throughout the rest of Hertfordshire.
- We know from that infections in these younger age groups spread to older age groups within households because of close household contact.
- We know from surveillance and contact tracing that this happened in Stevenage and other parts of Hertfordshire.
- We also know that this partly drove the increase in cases and hospitalisations in Hertfordshire over the past few months. Infection spread from younger to older age groups.
- Playgrounds can be sources of infection. The government’s own guidance on playgrounds includes “avoid social interaction as much as possible” in playgrounds and also that local authorities are empowered to take a range of actions in order to keep infections down.
We continue to monitor infection rates amongst these age groups through our Covid team and we are working hard to keep the virus under control as restrictions continue to relax. Easing of this closure could result in increases and will undo this work so far to reduce outbreaks in Stevenage.
All of our open spaces, parks and woodlands, where social distancing is easier, have remained open throughout to the public. Stevenage provides a fantastic range of green spaces for children, young people and families to enjoy, providing opportunities for children of all ages to play freely - to run around, play tag, fly a kite, go on a treasure hunt and spot wildlife to let children use their imagination which is vital to their development.
Over the past four years Stevenage Borough Council has invested over £1.5million in refurbishing the town’s playgrounds, this programme has been led by the involvement of children and young people. We are absolutely committed to the wellbeing of our young residents. You may also be aware that for the last 53 years Stevenage has run a dedicated Play Service from three dedicated Play Centres and parks across the town. We remain one of the only district councils in the country to run a free year-round play service, staffed by professional play workers and are proud to continue to do so. The service has continued to support over 2,500 children since the pandemic began. During summer 2020 the service ran pop-up play sessions for 1,042 children in parks and open spaces. Over Christmas and the October and February half term the service provided 1,482 play activity packs to children across the town. During Easter those activity packs are continuing to be delivered along with an additional dedicated service to support children from families on low incomes over the holidays.
We take a child’s right to play very seriously and have continued to come up with creative solutions in which we can facilitate this since the pandemic began. We have also launched a Young Person’s Healthy Hub this year to support young people’s wellbeing at the present time.
I hope this information gives you a clearer picture of the situation in Stevenage. We have not taken these decisions lightly and they remain under review. We are very much looking forward to opening our playgrounds as soon as it is safe to do so, but until then the protection of life has to be our main priority.
Stevenage Borough Council