Two and a half years on from the last Covid lockdown, the aftershock of its impact on children is still being felt. Though they were at less at risk of becoming seriously ill, a cocktail of consequences arising from the pandemic have severely affected many children’s health, learning, and development. A recent conversation with a primary school headteacher revealed some of the long-lasting side effects of the decision to keep schools closed for so long, and the harsh rules that stopped children from spending time with friends and extended family.
She told me how scores of four and five year olds starting school were arriving in buggies, or still wearing pull-up nappies, and how many were not ready for school life. They lacked the social, behavioural, and basic speech and language skills that a child needs to begin learning. These are children who missed out on crucial health checks. They spent less time at nursery and playgroup playing, socialising, discovering, and early-learning.
Many were stuck in front of a phone, tablet, or a television for months. We don’t know yet how this will shape their development or learning in later life, but I am not optimistic it was beneficial.
Other teachers tell me about the increase in disruptive behaviour in class, and how suspensions and exclusions are rising. There is a crisis in pupil attendance, and the gaps in exam attainment between well off and poorer students are widening again. The police say criminal exploitation of children increased, and charities working to keep children safe online say there has been an explosion in grooming.
There is an ongoing crisis with children’s mental health. One in six children in England are now estimated to have a diagnosable mental health problem, a number that has risen since the pandemic. Then there are those very vulnerable children. When lockdown was announced, it was terrifying to think about what was happening behind closed doors in the thousands of homes that were unsafe or frightening places. Families where domestic violence, addiction, and parental mental ill health were already serious problems, were to be locked up together for weeks.
We have now seen some of the terrible consequences of allowing some of the most at risk children to slip out of sight.
I don’t criticise the government for its initial decision to close schools during a period of uncertainty and fear. However, as Save the Children’s and the Child’s Rights Alliance submission to the Covid inquiry sets out, so much of the harm caused to children was preventable, and time and again government failed to consider children’s needs.
I don’t think that Government really appreciated, particularly during the first six months of the pandemic, how much the withdrawal of structure and support in many children’s lives would affect their wellbeing. Too often their approach lacked coherence or was indecisive. At times there even seemed to be an indifference. There were other priorities.
Closing schools to all but a small number of vulnerable children and key worker families, reducing physical activity, and the loneliness caused by not seeing friends was inevitably going to be detrimental for some children. For the children stuck in cramped or unsafe homes, children with little more than a shared mobile phone to do their schoolwork on, and the children whose confidence and bounce was lost to anxiety and worry, the pandemic was a disaster.
Some will say that with hindsight, we would have done things differently. But we didn’t need hindsight to know that opening pubs, zoos, and theme parks before schools was a short-sighted decision and that it was not putting the interests of children first. We didn’t need hindsight to recognise that a Zoom call could never replace a home visit to a family where a child was in danger of harm, or that in any emergency we should protect our children.
Next week I will be appearing before the Covid inquiry, sharing my experiences as the Children’s Commissioner for England during the pandemic. I will say that government was warned that extended lockdowns would compound children’s mental health problems, lead to lost learning, and increase child vulnerabilities. But most of all, my message will be a simple and clear one: this must never happen again.
Anne Longfield CBE is Chair of the Commission on Young Lives and a former Children’s Commissioner for England