exclusive I fear a mental health crisis is hurtling down the tracks - the negative impact of lockdown on kids is frightening
One-size-fits-all not working as younger people ravaged by stress and anxiety
I know I said last year I would never write about Covid-19 again but, feck it, I must go back on that promise today.
I'm doing so because I'm so frustrated, angry, sad, despondent and confused. And before the anonymous keyboard warriors rage against me, permit me to explain why.
I know how much suffering those who have witnessed loved ones dying from Covid-19 have endured. We've had far too many deaths in this country from the virus.
Furthermore, I accept there is no magic bullet available to solve the problems caused by the pandemic.
It is a killer virus which has been in Ireland for a year, and the different variants are making it even more deadly.
In their handling of the pandemic, the Government got a lot of things wrong.
But it is only fair to acknowledge they got a lot right as well.
Being critical - as I am this morning - does not mean I'm one of those contrary individuals whose default position is anti-government and anti-NPHET.
I'm not a medical expert. I have and will continue to abide by whatever regulations are issued by the Government and NPHET.
But constructive criticism is important in an open democracy and that's what I am attempting to do today.
The lockdown strategy is simply not working as well as it should be. This one-size-fits-all policy is not the solution.
It has resulted in isolation, loneliness, mental-health issues, stress, anxiety, and depression.
From my regular contacts with young people, I believe the negative impact lockdown has had on them is frightening.
Many have struggled with mental-health issues and unfortunately there wasn't help available.
I fear a mental-health crisis is hurtling down the tracks in Ireland.
Later this week, the Government is due to publish a road map which hopefully will provide an exit strategy as well as a matrix, which will demonstrate how we will emerge from this third lockdown.
Communication from the Government is still very poor, however.
Too many mixed messages, too many contradictory opinions being expressed and too much doom, gloom, and scaremongering coming from those in power.
The people are crying out for hope and hopefully the plan will reflect that mood in the nation.
As I alluded to earlier, I'm not a medical expert.
But I do know a lot about two other issues which the lockdown has impacted on - education and sport.
I want to call the Government to account on both subjects. I spent over 35 years as a teacher, vice-principal, and principal.
Last year the Department of Education had no plan B in terms of planning for state exams when the pandemic hit. They kept kicking the can down the road.
They dumped the oral and project elements of the state exams, which could easily have been included, and ended up with a shambolic Leaving Certificate based on predicted grades.
Despite assurances that the grades teachers gave their pupils would not be changed some were downgraded, which impacted disproportionately on the better students.
Worse still, the department revealed the ranking list of pupils which teachers compiled - having explicitly said it would not be published.
Just imagine the consternation this ranking list caused in smaller schools, where the teachers live in the local community.
One year down the road we might imagine the department would have learned from their mistakes.
Guess what. We're back to square one again. The department had no plan for 2021.
So we will end up with a mishmash of a Leaving, based on a traditional exam as well as predicted grades.
It is designed to keep the teacher unions on board.
All last summer the mantra was to get the schools opened in September.
Granted it did happen but essentially it was a box-ticking exercise and most certainly too narrowly focused.
Let me explain. A holistic education is vital for the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual development of our young people.
But this has gone out the window. There were no games, no musicals, no choirs, or drama in schools before Christmas.
The Government must come up with a plan for education which puts the needs of pupils at the top of the agenda.
Given all the squabbling between the department and the unions in recent weeks this has not been the case so far.
I have been involved in sport all my life in a professional capacity as a physical education teacher as well as a player, coach, administrator, and supporter.
Let me explain the importance of sport and fitness in society.
The United Nations have defined sport as 'all forms of physical activity that contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being and social interaction'.
The UN has also declared that sport and play are human rights that must be respected and enforced worldwide.
The Latin phrase 'mens sana in corpore sano' - a sound mind in a sound body - sums it up neatly.
Being physically active increases the proportion of endorphins in our system.
Often called the 'feel-good' chemicals they act as a pain reliever and happiness booster. This explains why sport and fitness is so important.
But the Government's lockdown strategy overlooked the role that sport, leisure activities and general fitness play in ensuring the physical and mental well-being of the nation's citizens, particularly the younger generation.
We have a crazy scenario: many youngsters are stuck indoors even though there is no scientific proof that the virus spreads in controlled situations outdoors.
Playing fields are closed and outdoor exercise in small groups is banned.
Golf is banned, even though the average 18-hole course is laid out over 18 acres.
In three-acre GAA pitches youngsters are not allowed to train in pods.
Yet before Christmas it was deemed safe to have 30 youngsters sit in a classroom for six hours a day.
I've watched elderly men cycle around my local town at night because they are afraid to venture into the countryside due to the 5km travel ban.
It's crazy. This policy is short-sighted and will do more damage to the mental health of youngsters than the pandemic will.
Just to cap it all, the Government made the baffling decision last week to omit senior inter-county GAA activity from its lists of elite sports, even though NPHET issued no directive on the matter.
Now only professional sports can continue in the Republic of Ireland.
But what constitutes professional sport? For example, two League of Ireland clubs in the Premier League, Longford Town and Drogheda, don't have full-time squads and of the First Division teams, only Galway United are full time.
Furthermore, the women's league is due to start on March 26 and the players involved are certainly not full-time professionals living in a bubble.
Unlike in Britain, amateur jockeys can still ride horses at race meetings in Ireland and are we supposed to believe that everybody involved in greyhound racing is a full-time professional?
Given that the average attendance at a meeting in normal times is 200, I doubt if there are many full-time workers in this section of the sport industry.
It strikes me this government decision was made on the hoof.
My definition of elite sports is that it is competition at the highest level, and inter-county senior football and hurling fulfils that criterion.
It was nothing short of a sneaky and ill-considered change in policy.
As I alluded to earlier the new government road map is due to be published soon.
I accept that the Level 5 lockdown must continue, and we can expect a very gradual reopening of the country.
However, in that process the reopening of outdoor sports facilities must be an absolute priority.
Youngsters have suffered enough. They must be able to play and train with their friends again.
All-Stars pick is about right
CRITICISING the All-Star football team is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. But, shock-horror, I have no complaints this year.
Fourteen of the players on RTE's Team of the Team - which I helped select - are named on the All-Star team.
And I wouldn't quibble with the one change: Padraig Faulkner instead Paddy Durcan. It was a toss-up.
I'm delighted Cavan got three gongs - one more than they achieved in the previous 49 years. And they deserved them because they lit up the championship last year.
Dublin's nine is well deserved, too. It is interesting to note that they filled every position bar one in the middle third of the field. I think this sums up why they are so dominant.
Of course, the scheme has its flaws and players from the weaker teams have little chance of securing an award. Luckily I played in ten All-Ireland finals which gave me a great opportunity to be selected.
Hand on heart, in my day an All-Star was a close second in terms of prestige to the All-Ireland medal.
The awards night was the GAA's version of the Oscars and sponsors Carrolls and Bank of Ireland spared no expense.
Unfortunately, those days are gone.
But congratulations to the 15 recipients. It is a wonderful honour for their county, club and particularly their families.
And a small 'bualadh bos' to the perennial fall guys - the selectors who got it right this year.
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