Fear not, children of Britain. Tory MPs have your back. They’re deeply concerned about your mental health, and, fearing the temporary application of a small piece of cloth in the middle of a pandemic might have a terrible impact on it, they’re taking a stand. Huzzah!
The charge is being led by Harlow’s finest Robert Halfon, the chair of the Education Committee, no less, who leads the last alliance of elves and men against the mask wearers of Mordor. Change is coming!
Except that may be over-egging it a bit. Let’s be fair to the Tolkein fan and Essex MP; he is not a complete pandemic luddite, nor is he a complete fool. He’s one of those all too rare Tories who has had the occasional good idea, and we’ll get to one of those in due course.
His concern about childhood mental health isn’t a new affectation. He has raised concerns about it in the past. He even secured a debate on the provision of counselling in schools, working with senior Labour MP Nick Brown through the House of Commons Backbench Business Committee.
In it, he urged the government to massively accelerate plans to place a mental health professional in each school. And – here’s that good idea I mentioned – even suggested a mental health levy on social media giants in recognition of the negative impact their products can have, which would surely help with the all-important question of funding.
Halfon has campaigned for more of that for mental health services, and correctly identified the problem with the “postcode lottery” faced by people seeking to access it for their kids – The Independent recently reported that it can take as long as three years to access support. Sometimes longer. I speak from personal experience here.
But the hard fact is that there is a reason the postcode lottery exists. There is a reason that many parents think CYMPHS – Children & Young People’s Mental Health Services, which used to be known as CAMHS – should be more accurately referred to as CHYCNSSKFO – Can’t Help, Your Child’s Not Suicidal So Kindly F*** Off. And no, I am not exaggerating.
That reason is the budget cuts which have gutted mental health care; cuts contained in repeated Chancellors’ budgets that Halfon obediently went into the lobby and voted for, along with many of his crocodile tear-crying colleagues who have suddenly become converts to the cause he espouses.
By the way, while we’re on that subject ask yourself this: what has the bigger impact on a child’s mental well being? The temporary warning of masks in the classroom in the midst of a pandemic that’s killing people and overwhelming the NHS, or the permanent, grinding poverty millions of Britons have to live in, day after day?
Halfon has written for The Sun calling for a higher minimum wage and lower taxes on the low waged. The core purpose of levelling up, he opined, should be cutting the cost of living. And, well, hear hear.
But actions speak louder than words – and Halfon’s voting record isn’t terribly pretty when it comes to poverty. He has consistently voted for measures to reduce spending on welfare benefits, such as the bedroom tax, which reduced housing benefit for social housing tenants deemed to have excess space, and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance in England.
Being poor and worrying about having enough to eat, clothes to wear and a warm place to study – these things are going to have a far greater impact on children’s mental health than a mask. Ditto hearing parents arguing about money; seeing their haggard faces in the morning at breakfast (if there is even breakfast to be had).
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Yes, I see that masks aren’t necessarily helpful when it comes to learning. But, then, nor is having your regular teachers and other key staff constantly off sick through picking up Covid.
Children are least at risk from the virus (although there is still some risk) but that doesn’t hold true for their teachers, and especially not the army of older retired teachers education secretary Nadhim Zahawi is urging to turn out to fill in the gaps created by staff contracting Covid.
Given all this, it’s impossible not to feel just a tad cynical when Halfon or his pals start crying over the mental health of children their government has done so much to damage, and appears to have little real interest in improving.
Wearing a mask is a small thing to do to keep school staff and vulnerable children safe. My son, who’s old enough to know his own mind, happily dons one because he understands that any drawbacks are outweighed by the benefits in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s a pity the likes of Halfon can’t see that, but I suppose it’s true that age doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom.