Boris Johnson is under fire for imposing tougher coronavirus rules on children than adults, amid growing unrest amongst Tory MPs about the severity of ongoing restrictions.
Anger among backbenchers spilled over after a Cabinet Office statement told parents to avoid taking kids to playgrounds if they had access to a private garden, prompting Tories to accuse the government of acting unlawfully and in an overbearing way.
Campaign groups pointed out that children cannot exercise with others their own age in the park because the adults accompanying them would be in breach of COVID-19 restrictions.
Playing Out, a group which ordinarily encourages parents to organise play sessions for children on their streets, has said children are “suffering” due to unclear guidelines.
But a government spokesman said there was no flexibility on the rules.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “Playgrounds are primarily for use by children who do not have access to private outdoor space, and while parents, guardians or carers are allowed to take children to a playground for exercise, they must not socialise with other people while there.”
This outraged Tory MPs, with former health secretary Jeremy Hunt saying: “I’m in the ‘go harder and faster’ camp on COVID but it does seem over-zealous to allow two adults to exercise outdoors but not two children (who face much lower risk from COVID but probably greater mental health risks from lockdown).”
Steve Baker, one of the Tory MPs in the Coronavirus Recovery Group, which is putting pressure on the PM to reopen, suggested the government position was unlawful.
“This unabashed vehemence in the expression of state power beyond the limits of the law would be comical if it were not for real,” he said.
“As government succeeds in vaccinating the vulnerable, incidents like this only underscore the need to reclaim our lives once and for all.”
Children in England are already going back to school two weeks later than those in Scotland and Wales, despite Mr Johnson saying that pupils are his top priority.
Meanwhile Playing Out’s co-director, Alice Ferguson, said on Wednesday ministers must “include play as essential exercise” – one of the limited reasons people are allowed to leave the house under current legislation.
Ms Ferguson told PA: “Children playing outside doesn’t get recognised as being exercise because it doesn’t look like exercise in the way adults do it, like going for a run.
“It would give parents reassurance that it’s a legitimate reason to be outside with their children if it were included in the guidelines.
“There is a lack of clarity, and the people that suffer in the end are the children who are not able to exercise.”
Renewed calls come as a father and his two young sons said they were sent home while making a snowman in their local park after the current lockdown in England came into force in January.
Tory MPs are highlighting shifts in the prime minister’s language in recent days, apparently becoming more cautious.
On 27 January, Mr Johnson said: “Our goal now must be to buy the extra weeks we need to immunise the most vulnerable and get this virus under control, so that together we can defeat this most wretched disease and reclaim our lives, once and for all.”
But on Wednesday he stressed that lifting lockdown restrictions cannot result in another wave of the virus.
This week’s new clampdown on foreign travel has particularly inflamed the mood on the backbenches, with Tory MPs worried that the threat of 10-year jail sentences is over the top.
They accused ministers of chaos after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the public they should not even book a holiday in the UK, before Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he’d already done so, and Mr Johnson said it was too soon to say.
One Tory source said: “Today has been mad. I think the Shapps holiday comments have pushed a lot of people over the brink.”
Tory vice chair of the backbench 1922 committee Charles Walker told Sky News that coronavirus will always evolve “but we cannot continue the way we are continuing – appalling, anxiety and stress”.
“Epidemic of mental health problems around the corner. We have an economy to maintain and this is not acceptable.
“Shapps saying people shouldn’t book holidays was extraordinary and irresponsible.”
Unhappiness is mounting, with nearly two weeks to go until the PM outlines his roadmap, despite a slew of positive news about vaccines.