Covid-19 ‘amplifying children’s disadvantages across UK’

Lucinda Cameron, PA Scotland
·4-min read

The Covid-19 pandemic is amplifying the disadvantages faced by children across the UK, the nation’s children’s commissioners have warned.

They also warn that Brexit poses significant challenges to the rights of children across the country, and say it will weaken legal protections for them.

Children’s commissioners from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have raised 30 areas of concern to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in their five-yearly “report card”.

They call on the UK and devolved governments to address the disadvantages they say children and young people are facing in a joint report to the United Nations.

The report states that in the UK, there were 4.2 million children (30%) living in poverty in 2018/19 with rates pre-pandemic predicted to reach 5.2 million by 2022.

In Scotland, an estimated 24% of children each year lived in relative poverty in 2016-19.

The report found that disabled children across the UK have been disproportionately affected by austerity and the pandemic.

The Scotland commissioner also warned that already stretched mental health services for children have been made even worse because of the pandemic.

North of the border the number of children waiting more than 18 weeks for an initial appointment with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services rose last year.

The report said that as most CAMHS services were very limited from March to June 2020 waiting times are likely to have increased.

Bruce Adamson, children and young people’s commissioner for Scotland, said: “Before the pandemic, services were already stretched but it has become even harder for children and young people to access vital services.

“Children and young people have consistently been telling us that it’s impossible to be seen unless they are at crisis point. It’s unacceptable that children have to be in a mental health emergency before they receive treatment.”

He added: “The eyes of the world are once again upon us as we send this report to the UN, and Scotland is still failing on many of the issues raised when we last reported in 2016.

“In Scotland, we have made good progress on banning physical punishment, reviewing the care system, and bringing rights into law, but there are outstanding issues across a broad range of children’s rights.

“We need to do much more to ensure that children’s rights and interests are prioritised in decision-making and budgeting. We must address the areas where law, policy and practice fall short of international minimum standards, such as the restraint of children and our approach to criminal justice.

“We must act more swiftly to address the impact of poverty and mental health, and take a rights-based approach to recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The report also considered the impact of Brexit and said that the European Union (EU) Withdrawal Agreement Act removes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights from UK law, “weakening legal protections for children”.

It said that children’s exposure to toxic substances is also a “significant risk” as the EU’s Reach Regulations, which can cover anything from chemicals within food packaging to herbicides and pesticide, will no longer apply after Brexit.

The commissioners also said that Brexit poses challenges for children in Northern Ireland who may see their rights restricted, particularly those who often cross the border.

A UK Government spokesman said: “Making sure every child gets the best start in life is central to our efforts to level up opportunity across the country, which is why we have raised the living wage for all and boosted welfare support by billions.

“The UK Government has also provided an additional £9.5 billion in funding to the Scottish Government to tackle the pandemic in Scotland.

“This is on top of the block grant, and in addition to extensive direct UK Government support to people in Scotland including Universal Credit, Jobcentre Plus, the Chancellor’s Plan for Jobs, and the furlough and self-employed income support schemes.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said:  “We are committed to ensuring that children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

“Scotland is the only part of the UK to have set in statute ambitious income-based targets toward the eradication of child poverty and has set out concrete action to deliver progress through the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan.

“We have provided an additional £15 million to local authorities to respond to children and young people’s mental health issues, with a focus on those brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are also ensuring that every secondary school will have access to a counsellor.”