Lesley Riddoch: This demand simply won't wash

Share this article

Should Scottish children play in the woods without access to soap and water? According to Health Protection Scotland (HPS) the answer seems to be no.

The quango is currently involved in a stand-off with the Secret Garden in Fife - Britain's first totally outdoors nursery - over the demand that its 45 pupils use soap and water, not antiseptic wipes, to clean children's hands before eating lunch and after toileting.

Nursery staff say the extra weight of water would turn their daily walk to the unspoilt, hilltop woodland into a daily drive. The alternative - installing a water tank - would encourage static, not roaming, free-ranging play.

HPS says "no rural environment can be considered free of E coli 0157 contamination" and insists wipes are not good enough. The argument sounds nit-picking. The final decision will hardly dominate the front pages. It should.

If the Care Commission insists on hand-washing it may deter everyone battling Scotland's indoor-oriented, couch potato culture. If it allows wipes it could help dispel the largely false belief that Health and Safety rule-makers are remote and paranoid.

The Secret Garden Outdoor Nursery in Fife was opened two years ago by Cathy Bache - an outdoors childminder and former indoors nursery teacher. Her inspiration was an eccentric grandfather who encouraged her to light campfires as a child and several years in Norway with her own two children. Outdoor nurseries are commonplace in Norway - the lynchpin of a national culture where the vast majority ski, hike and camp regularly and own mountain cabins and boats.

Keen to replicate that healthy, no-fuss Nordic perspective, Cathy established the Secret Garden as a non profit-making community venture in her own village and based the outdoor nursery in mature, deciduous woodlands gifted by a local landowner.

The children who attend are self reliant (they carry their own rucksacks), cooperative ("old" hands take care of new recruits) well equipped (with insulated, waterproof jumpsuits) and resilient (bad weather simply means a move further into the woods for more shelter).

Play at the Secret Garden goes with the flow, weather, wind direction and season. So upon registration organisers announced their intention to use antiseptic wipes and sanitising hand gel - light, portable and more effective than hand washing in everyday settings according to the World Health Organisation.

The authorities accepted this, until an inspection found wipes hadn't been given to every child that day - only to those with visibly dirty hands.That mistake forced the Care Commission to insist on the use of soap and water in keeping with the Scottish Government's new National Hand Hygiene Campaign. So from August until cars stopped getting up the hill in heavy snow last winter, the nursery complied.

Since then they've gone back to wipes - making sure now that all children are included.

So what should the Care Commission decide?

This would be a little local difficulty if the decision did not have far larger implications.

If outdoors nurseries are regulated like farms, petting farms or zoos (where animal contact is probable) they will never catch on.

If "no rural environment can be considered free of E coli 0157 contamination" (even with a fence in place between children and sheep) all outdoor camps, activity centres, scouts, guides and school outings are placing children at risk by permitting outdoor play without providing soap and water.

Indeed, since E coli is present on almost every surface, responsible parents should carry soap and water to wash kids' hands after a trip to the newsagents, the sweetie shop, their friends or actually, anywhere.

This is madness.

Our health authorities should be encouraging us to weigh risks, not believe we can eliminate them. The risk that children will contract E coli while running around in a sheep-free wood without soap and water is considerably less than the risk they will become obese, passive and inactive sitting around indoors with gallons of detergent.

And I've no doubt the Care Commission, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Health Protection Scotland all agree. Happily the Secret Garden case gives these authorities the ideal opportunity to restate publicly and unequivocally that calculated risks are part and parcel of responsible childcare.

In fact, contrary to popular opinion, Health and Safety regulations have not been responsible for banning conkers, snowballs, flounder-stamping competitions or home-made cakes in schools. In most of these highly publicised cases, insurance policies were to blame - or individuals whose decisions were quickly over-ruled.

The HSE is so fed up being blamed for every daft, neurotic, risk-averse ruling, that it now features a "myth of the month" on its website.

The "hanging flower basket ban" myth was born when Suffolk County Council took down displays in 2004 in case they were too heavy after watering and returned them when it became obvious there was no problem.

Too late. News coverage of the "decision" was later used to justify a genuine hanging basket ban in Wales.

Neither are conkers banned in schools. In 2004, the headmaster of a Cumbrian primary asked schoolchildren to don laboratory goggles while playing conkers in a "pop" at the lengthy risk assessment forms he had to complete for any outdoor activity.

Six years on the HSE is still trying to counter the "no conkers" message and the form-filling culture.Chair Judith Hackitt recently criticised generic local authority risk assessment forms for being - "40 pages long and attempting to cover every situation - even teachers taking children for a walk around the park."

Forty-page forms are still distributed. The HSE still gets the blame. And 50 per cent of schools now believe organising trips is "difficult".

Ill-founded health and safety myths have created a risk-averse bureaucratic default which in turn has spawned a dangerous level of contempt for the whole function of health and safety amongst an irritated general public .

A bit of well-publicised common sense over the Secret Garden's hygiene dilemma would help set the record straight.