Concerns have been raised about the fairness of new coronavirus rules over fears that better off parents will “buy friends” for their children while those from poorer families have social activities severely curtailed.
Under new restrictions that came into force this week in Scotland, members of the public are generally permitted to meet up with members of just one other household, in groups of no more than six, indoors and outdoors.
While the restrictions do not apply in schools, meaning hundreds of children can mix freely without social distancing there, the two household limit does apply in their free time.
A series of exemptions are in place for “organised activities” that were already permitted, including sports clubs, dance classes and groups such as scouts, cubs and brownies. However, concerns have been raised that because sending children to these activities cost money, those from poor families will effectively be excluded from meeting up with more than one friend at a time.
So can I just check @jasonleitch @NicolaSturgeon, if I pay for my daughter and some of her friends to do an organised outdoor activity with a business/service, her sixth birthday party can go ahead? Lord, I just want to throw them in the garden, let them play and eat cake! 🍰 https://t.co/NjftBdQfzx
— Ali Howard Allan (@AliHowardAllan) September 14, 2020
Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, pointed out that the rules would not apply in a venue that charges for access, such as a five-a-side football facility, but children would be banned from playing for free in groups in parks or streets.
Equally, a birthday party could take place at “organised” venues that charge for access, but not in a person’s house or garden.
Ms Lennon warned that children from disadvantaged backgrounds faced paying the highest price for decisions that “aren’t properly thought out”.
She added: “The two household rule effectively means that children can mix at school and at organised activities like sports clubs, which might cost money, but they won’t be allowed to just play in the street or at a play park with their friends. Richer parents will be able to buy their children access to friends that poorer families can’t afford.
“Nicola Sturgeon and her government need to take action to reduce inequality - not widen it.”
Country sports such as grouse shooting and activities such as golf are also exempt, meaning the discrepancies affect adults as well as children.
Challenged over the unfairness yesterday, Ms Sturgeon said she had sought advice on whether the rules could be eased for primary school children. However, it remains unclear whether any further easing will be allowed for those aged 12 or above.
The rules mean that children walking to school together with more than one friend is illegal, with police warning that while there will not be proactive patrols around schools, they may challenge pupils if officers see them breaking the rules.
Ms Sturgeon said the changes were “made very quickly” and admitted that there were “potential unintended consequences”.
While children under 12 do not count towards the limit of six people meeting at any one time in Scotland, the ban on members of more than two households meeting does apply to them, meaning the exemption effectively only applies if adults meet up with their young children.
There have already been calls for all children to be exempt from the new “rule of six” restrictions, over fears that the rules will further hamper their social development.
The First Minister added: “I am acutely aware, every time we make one of these decisions, that potentially there’s an unintended consequence and it impacts more on one group of people than it does on the other.
“We try to think that through as much as possible… but none of this is perfect and none of this is ever going to be perfect. What we are trying to do is limit household interactions as much as possible to try and stem the virus, but I will always listen to areas where we might not have got it absolutely right.”