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COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities for vulnerable children

The children’s commissioner for England has urged a comprehensive recovery package for children to help them following their experiences of the last six months and the ongoing crisis of the Coronavirus pandemic.

In a report, Anne Longfield warns that for many of the most vulnerable children in England, the disruption of the last six months has been damaging and compounded existing inequalities.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “Children have fewer health risks from Covid-19 and yet they have suffered disproportionately from the nation’s efforts to contain the virus. While it has been good to see a greater understanding in parts of Whitehall and Westminster about what it means to be a vulnerable child, many of the decisions taken over the last six months have not put children first. While pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops opened, the majority of children were not able to attend school.”

The report warns that even before the crisis struck, there were 2.2 million vulnerable children living in risky home situations in England, including nearly 800,000 children living with domestic abuse and 1.6 million living with parents with severe mental health conditions.

However, these numbers are likely to have swelled, fuelled by families locked down in their homes for months, and an emerging economic crisis adding financial pressures. At the same time, children’s education has been disrupted with the closure of schools for six months. The report predicts a widening of the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged or vulnerable backgrounds and their peers.

The report highlights how millions of children have faced a cocktail of secondary risks which means that many have suffered disproportionately as a result of the crisis. Some of the most vulnerable children, such as children in care, children in custody and children with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities have seen their rights actively downgraded at a time when protections should have been increased, not weakened.

The report also warns that faced with a winter of Covid-related restrictions across society, followed by a long economic tail including widespread unemployment, the country faces an inter-generational crisis, with the impact of the economic fall-out on parents determining the future prospects of their children, and destroying the government’s promises to ‘level-up’ opportunity.

New research published by the Children’s Commissioner alongside the report highlights some of the concerns children had during lockdown. A survey of children for the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, found the greatest reported increase in stress during lockdown was about worries about school. More than 40 per cent of children reported feeling more stressed about schoolwork and exams after schools closed to most in March. However, overall, it appears many children felt less stressed as the lockdown went on.

The children’s commissioner calls for

- A comprehensive recovery package for children to mitigate the damage caused by the crisis. The report calls on the government to ensure all families have the basic resources to provide care for their children by introducing a pre-emptive package of welfare and housing support for families who have built up rent arrears to counter a potential wave of family homelessness.

- Greater investment in local authority early help services, the Troubled Families programme and health visitors.

- Schools should target their portion of the £1 billion catch up fund on vulnerable and disadvantaged children who have lost out the most – they should not be forced to spend it on PPE, supply teachers or adaptations to school buildings.

- A greater focus on pastoral care in the coming weeks and months, supported by accelerated implementation of the government’s Green Paper on mental health.

- Next year’s summer exams should be pushed back as far as possible, while ensuring that children receive results in time to progress to college or university as normal.

- Children to be put at the heart of planning for further lockdowns, local or national, so that schools are the last to close and first to reopen if there are further lockdowns.

- Children’s rights and protections should be upheld and legal changes which have reduced children’s rights and are still currently in operation should be reversed.

- Local authorities should do everything possible to ensure respite services for disabled children and their families continue to operate.

- Should there be further lockdowns, the government should review the rule of six over time with a view to exempting children under 12.

Anne Longfield said: “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.

“The scale of the response to Covid-19 has shown us how our society can respond to huge challenges. 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 concluded.

Childhood in the time of Covid



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