Children younger than 12 should be exempt from the “rule of six” limitation on social gatherings, according to a report by the Children’s Commissioner.
The report claimed children have been overlooked by policies aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus and urged the Government to put their interests first in the event of a second national lockdown.
In addition to exempting young children from the “rule of six”, the report recommended excluding them from restrictions on individuals mixing with different households so they can continue to play together.
It also urged the Government to push summer exams back as far as possible while still allowing time for university applications.
The report by the Children’s Commissioner’s Office showed the first six months of lockdown “compounded existing inequalities” for the 2.2 million vulnerable children living in risky home situations in England.
This includes nearly 800,000 children living with domestic abuse and 1.6 million living with parents with severe mental health conditions – and the report warned these numbers are likely to have swelled over lockdown.
Some 41% of schoolchildren also reported feeling more stressed about exams when schools closed at the start of March, according to a survey by the office.
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said many of the decisions taken during the first lockdown, such as reopening pubs and restaurants before schools, “have not put children first”.
She said: “Children have fewer health risks from Covid-19 and yet they have suffered disproportionately from the nation’s efforts to contain the virus.
“Unless the Government acts now, Covid-19 is in danger of becoming an inter-generational crisis, with the impact of the economic fall-out on parents determining the future prospects of their children.
“This would decimate the Government’s ability to level up opportunity across the country in the way the Prime Minister has repeatedly promised to do.”
“After all the sacrifices children have made over the last few months, we should repay them with a comprehensive recovery package, ‘a Nightingale moment’, that puts their interests first,” she added.
Javed Khan, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, supported the report’s conclusions, adding the “negative effects” of Government lockdown decisions and a system which has been “failing far too many children” could “last a lifetime” for vulnerable youngsters.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), added that schools need to be supported to ensure they can support children from low income backgrounds who struggle to access food, uniform and the internet during the pandemic.
The NEU supports the report’s recommendations, and is urging the Government to provide free school meals during term and holiday time for every young person with a parent on Universal Credit, and that any child without an internet connection is given a working device.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, agreed young people’s interests have been “seemingly an afterthought for the Government”, though he argued against the report’s recommendation to push back summer exams.
Mr Whiteman said to avoid “irreparable damage to a generation” children must be placed “at the front of the queue for help”, especially those with Send (Special Educational Needs and Disability).
He added pushing back exams could have a “disastrous effect” on students’ mental health because it could force them to take more exams in a shorter space of time, rather than having them at intervals throughout the summer.
Ms Longfield’s report also said the Government’s efforts to “build back better” must focus on investing in children, including continuing the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit for families beyond the current end date in April, and adding £10 per week for child payment.
The report called for greater investment in local early help services, the Troubled Families programme and health visitors, and for schools to be able to focus the £1 billion catch-up fund on vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
It urged local authorities to ensure disabled children’s services can continue to operate and the Government to provide additional funding for this if necessary.
A Government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic, we have taken action, including introducing the rule of six, to get the virus under control and to avoid the need to introduce any stricter measures.
“Supporting children and their wellbeing has been central to our coronavirus response, including getting pupils back to school.”