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Are playdates okay? The HSE's advice on social distancing for children

The HSE said parents should be practical in minimising the risk, while allowing some semblance of normality to continue.

LAST UPDATE | 13 Mar 2020

CHILDREN ACROSS THE country will be learning in their homes for the next two weeks, with all schools and childcare facilities closed as part of measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Yesterday the Department of Education said all students, from pre-school to third level, are urged to practice social distancing and to minimise physical contact with each other.

“This should include minimising social contact, avoiding meeting up and keeping physical space between them. Parents and guardians are urged to support their children to maintain this approach,” the department said. 

There has been some conflicting advice in relation to how stringently parents should apply this advice over the next two weeks and healthcare officials have said it is possible restrictions could be in place for an extended period. 

A consultant in respiratory medicine at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, Dr Anne Marie McLaughlin, told RTE News that she would recommend stopping all interaction of children, adults and teenagers outside of their household contacts.

“So that means no parties, no playdates, no visits to the playground, where your children will necessarily interact with other children,” she said. 

It is very important that we realise that children are vectors of Covid-19 – in addition to adults – but they can be asymptomatic carriers and potentially pass it on to more vulnerable members of society, particularly their grandparents.

At tonight’s Department of Health briefing, Dr Ronan Glynn, deputy chief medical officer, gave some practical advice: “We appreciate these measures have a significant impact on the daily lives of families. However, they are necessary for the public good.

Parents should try and avoid arranging play dates for groups of young children at this early stage of the outbreak.
However, rather than staying indoors, consider outdoor activities such as playing football in the open in small groups of 3 or 4 while maintaining social distancing of 2 metres.

“This is a time to be mindful of the public health guidelines and apply these measures to your daily lives.”

When asked at today’s earlier HSE briefing about whether parents should allow playdates or other socialising by their children with friends, Dr Colm Henry, HSE Chief Clinical Officer said:

“If you look at the kind of measures that were introduced yesterday, it’s asking people to reduce social interactions by 75%. Now, in bringing in these measures to avoid dissemination of the virus, you focus on the highest risk congregations – large crowds, particularly in internal spaces.

But we have to balance any advice we’re giving with the idea that this may be a protracted exposure we have to this virus, not just over days and weeks, but perhaps further than the end of March. And with any advice we give we have to be mindful people have to live their lives and carry on and children have to play.

He said more detailed advice will be issued in the coming days to assist parents.

“But the basic advice is still very apt, which is children should wash their hands – they prove much more compliant sometimes with washing their hands than grown-ups and they could teach the rest of us how to do it properly,” he added.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We have to be reasonable and balanced in what we can expect from people, including children.”

His HSE colleague Dr Sarah Doyle echoed this advice, telling reporters that what the government implements has to be “doable” because otherwise, as time goes on, people may begin to ignore it completely. 

If people are unable to implement the kind of measures we’re advising, they won’t do it, so there has to be a practical approach.

“But then people need to know how they can protect themselves in their own home. So, to limit the number if you’re having a playdate, to teach your children how to interact.

“Obviously if a child is sick, they shouldn’t be coming, they shouldn’t be having a playdate. So it’s being very reasonable and practical in minimising the risk while allowing some semblance of normality to continue.”

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