Lockdown harm to children was preventable, Government told

Children lockdown
Children lockdown

The harm caused to children by lockdown was preventable, leading charities and experts will tell the Government in a damning report.

The Children’s Rights Organisations alliance says social distancing and the closure of schools and playgrounds during the Covid pandemic had “long-lasting and era-defining impacts”.

The group, which includes Save the Children, Just for Kids Law and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, was established to give written evidence to the Covid Inquiry.

Its report, entitled What About The Children?, argues that harm could have been avoided if ministers had considered children’s rights when making decisions on how to limit the spread of the virus.

It will be submitted to the inquiry – which resumes evidence hearings next week, scrutinising government decision-making and the response to the pandemic – on Wednesday.

Its headline finding is that the “worst impacts of the pandemic for children could have been prevented if their voices were heard and if children’s rights were considered by UK decision-makers”.

Anne Longfield, who was children’s commissioner for the first year of the pandemic and is backing the paper, said: “This report sets out in very stark terms how children were frequently at the back of the queue when the Government made its biggest decisions about lockdown and reopening the economy.

“Three years on, and many children and families are paying the price for the mistakes that were made. So many of the long-term problems arising from Covid could have been alleviated, or even prevented altogether, had the interests of children been made a top priority by the Government. This must never happen again.”

During the pandemic, the number of young people seeking help for mental health problems surged, jumping from 12.1 per cent of children in 2017 to 17.8 per cent last year.

Last month, a survey of more than 6,000 parents in England found that lockdown had damaged the emotional development of almost half of children.

Meanwhile, the proportion of pupils meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by the end of primary school fell from 65 per cent in 2018-19 to 59 per cent in 2022-23.

The report says that, had schools been deemed essential infrastructure – putting them on a par with hospitals and public transport, which remained open during Covid – children may not have suffered harms such as loss of learning, child abuse and high risk of poor mental health.

It adds that early years experts were “particularly concerned” about children’s speech and language development, with some noticing delays in babies’ physical development after the closure of nurseries.

Ministers have not learnt lessons from lockdown, the campaigners warn, pointing to the concrete crisis that has resulted in dozens of schools being fully or partially shut and forced thousands of pupils back to remote learning.

“Before the pandemic, mass closures of schools, nurseries and universities seemed unthinkable,” the report says. “But after multiple lockdowns, Covid bubble policies, teachers’ strikes and the Raac crisis, it no longer feels like a priority to ensure schools are open for all pupils.”

It comes as a Durham education trust forced to reintroduce remote learning because of dangerous concrete in school buildings called for pandemic-style GCSE and A-level assessments, where pupils’ previous work is used to judge their abilities.

Sir Gavin Williamson, who was education secretary during the pandemic, said: “It is clear that schools and early years settings need to be protected above all else. By doing so we safeguard the future, and we need to recognise we will have to sacrifice other things in the future to keep them open if there is ever another pandemic.”

The Telegraph’s Lockdown Files revealed that Sir Gavin fought for schools to reopen in January 2021, but his efforts were defeated after a “rearguard action” by Matt Hancock, then the health secretary.

The Telegraph has also exposed how social media posts critical of Covid policies including the decision to close schools were monitored by the Government’s Counter-Disinformation Unit.

Further recommendations in the report include the appointment of a dedicated Cabinet minister to ensure that children’s interests were considered in times of crisis, and a recovery plan to tackle the long-term effects of lockdowns on young people.

It adds: “Important lessons must be learned for the future while the events are still fresh in our minds. And crucially, children need support now to deal with the consequences of decisions made during the pandemic – the years of lost learning, lost freedoms and lost hope.”

It comes as MPs urge Rishi Sunak to create a register of missing pupils amid a post-lockdown school attendance crisis. Department for Education statistics show that school absences in England have risen by more than 50 per cent since 2019.

The Telegraph has previously highlighted how addressing the effects of lockdown on children has not been prioritised by the Government. The impact of the pandemic on young people was initially excluded from the scope of the Covid Inquiry, with no mention of the words “child” or “children” in the draft terms of reference.

Baroness Hallett, who is chairing the inquiry, only committed to examining the effects on children after a campaign by The Telegraph. However, the subject will not be addressed in the six inquiry modules announced so far, and evidence on it is not expected to be heard until 2025 at the earliest.

Mr Sunak and Boris Johnson were expected to give evidence on the Government’s pandemic response next month, but their appearances have been pushed back until November amid the party conference season.

They are expected to face questions about closing schools as well as about policies such as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which Mr Sunak ran while chancellor.

The report criticises the Government for reopening hospitality venues before schools and childcare centres, a decision it says caused “unnecessary harm” to young people and says officials “unfairly blamed children for rising infection rates”, highlighting messaging such as the “Don’t Kill Granny” campaign.

Commenting on the report, Dan Paskins, the director of UK impact at Save the Children, said lessons must be learned, adding: “The UK’s pandemic policies harmed children and young people, and this report concludes the dramatic impact on their well-being was avoidable.

“While all children were impacted by the pandemic, those who were already having a tough time were most likely to be failed by government policies.

“Decision-makers had lots of tough choices to make, and this isn’t about blaming individuals, yet the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that lessons need to be learned and better systems put in place to protect children in future crises.”

Louise King, the director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, said: “The evidence in our report clearly shows that children suffered during the pandemic because the UK Government failed to adequately consider their rights and interests.

“We need to see action now to mitigate the harm children have already suffered over the last few years, and permanent changes to make sure that mistakes aren’t repeated in the future – changes which place children at the heart of government decision-making.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Time in school is vital for a child’s education, well-being and future life chances. We know children were amongst those most affected by the pandemic, and we are helping them catch up academically as well as socially.

“We have made £5 billion available to help pupils recover from the impact of the pandemic, including over £1.5 billion for the National Tutoring Programme and 16-19 Tuition Fund, which have supported millions of students to catch up on lost learning.”