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Why Covid Inquiry must look at impact on children

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing on 31/03/2022

Along with UsForThem, Save the Children, former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield and many others, we have co-signed a letter calling for the upcoming Covid Inquiry to specifically look at the impact of the pandemic on children.

Incredibly, the draft Terms of Reference (ToR) that set out what the Inquiry will look at do not even mention children and there is just one line that refers to school closures. The public has until 7th April to respond to this and ask for changes to the final ToR.

The above letter sets out in detail the many ways that children as a whole were particularly severely impacted by the Government’s pandemic response and why this needs to be investigated. This recent article in the BMJ also sets out strong arguments why the ToR need to be changed to include a strong focus on children, including how and why they were prevented from playing outside.

Restrictions on outdoor play

During lockdowns and school closures, children in England were discouraged and prevented from playing outdoors, with serious impact for their mental and physical health. The rules allowed for “exercise” outside the home but there was no clarity that this included informal play for children (the main way that children normally get exercise). As a result, many children barely left home for long periods, especially those living in flats with no garden. Children and families who did play out in parks or in the quiet, traffic-free streets were at the receiving end of judgement from neighbours or authorities. Some were sent home by police or even fined.

Children in England were also effectively prevented from seeing a single friend during times when adults could meet one other person outdoors. Children over 5 but too young to leave home unaccompanied were unable to benefit from the ‘one to one’ rule’ which, according to Just for Kids Law, amounted to possible discrimination against children and resulted in unnecessary harm.

Throughout the pandemic, Playing Out and allies campaigned for children’s wellbeing to be a higher consideration within the rules and guidelines. In particular, we repeatedly called on the Government to enable children to play outside during lockdowns, when they were not at school and sports clubs were closed. Our main request was for the guidelines to make it clear that informal outdoor play counted as “exercise” and to allow for children to at least meet with one friend. It is likely that some of the harm done to children’s mental and physical health could have been avoided had these simple changes been made but sadly this didn’t happen.

Responding to the Inquiry consultation

If you would like to respond to the consultation and ask that children are included as a priority, you are welcome to use some of the arguments we have made, refer to the UsFor Them submission or to make your own. The survey is very short and they are not asking for actual evidence at this stage – just what the inquiry should cover. You can respond as an organisation or an individual. A summary of Playing Out’s response is below:

Do the Inquiry’s draft Terms of Reference cover all the areas that you think should be covered by the Inquiry?

No

Please explain why you think the draft Terms of Reference do not cover all the areas that the Inquiry should address.

The draft Terms of Reference (“ToR”) do not currently cover the overall impact of the pandemic response for children and young people, especially outside of education, or how the wellbeing of children and young people will be prioritised in future pandemics or comparable emergencies.

In their current form, the draft ToR fall far below what is needed to ensure that the interests of young people and children are properly considered by the Inquiry and safeguarded for the future. Given that children have in many ways been the group most impacted by the pandemic response in ways that go far beyond loss of education, it would be a serious omission not to specifically include children’s health and wellbeing within the final ToR.

Which issues or topics do you think the Inquiry should look at first?

Children’s wellbeing – to what extent children’s mental and physical wellbeing were considered in decision-making around covid rules, regulations and guidelines, weighing up risks and benefits.

Children’s rights – were children as a group discriminated against in the rules and guidelines (for example, the strict 1-2-1 rule in England allowed adults to meet a single friend outdoors but children too young to do so unaccompanied could not benefit from this)

Outdoor play – how and why were children prevented or discouraged from playing outside and meeting friends during lockdowns? What impact did this have for their physical and mental health? How justified was it based on the evidence? How did the four nations differ in their approach to children’s outdoor play during the pandemic and were outcomes for children different as a result?

Do you think the Inquiry should set a planned end-date for its public hearings, so as to help ensure timely findings and recommendations?

Yes

How should the Inquiry be designed and run to ensure that bereaved people or those who have suffered serious harm or hardship as a result of the pandemic have their voices heard?

Children as a whole and particularly those facing economic or other disadvantage should be considered as a group who have suffered undue and serious harm as a result of the pandemic. There is ample evidence now available of the short and long term damage done to children’s mental and physical health, some of which is summarised in this BMJ article.

The Inquiry should ensure that children and parents have their voices and experiences heard and considered. Schools, childcare settings and non-governmental organisations who can reach families should be consulted on the best way to do this and involved in getting the consultation out directly to children and parents.

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