coronavirus Education Health Human Rights inclusion NHS

Where have all the children gone?

“We have a responsibility as a nation to build a better tomorrow for our children.”

Where have all the children gone? Where are the separate briefings that concentrate solely on the impact of Coronavirus and the lockdown on the nation’s children? They do get a passing mention occasionally thanking them for their patience and acknowledging their resilience but in reality they have become a forgotten section of the population beyond political guess work  about when the schools might be able to re open and under what conditions.

There has been a bit of newsreel about the confinement of children living in high rise flats without access to a garden or local green space but the voices of children and young people about the impact on their lives of this pandemic has largely been missing amongst the rightful outrage about the death toll, the NHS and PPE and the shocking impact of the virus on our elderly citizens living in care homes.

So what does all this mean for children and what do we need to do now and in the future to mitigate the long term effects of the lockdown on citizens who appear to have been denied a voice?

Neil Mackay in an article in the Herald this week bemoaned the fact that children in Scotland weren’t participating much in on line lessons provided by teachers. (Neil Mackay: Scotland’s handling of schools in lockdown is a national disgrace) 28th April 2020. He didn’t blame teachers but there was a tone of arrogance with regard to parents who clearly aren’t doing enough to make sure their children are logging on in spite of the fact that 7% of children have no access to a secure broadband connection.  Certainly the number of days of schooling lost to the virus is a concern but the other immediate and longer term effects on all aspects of children and young people’s lives are at least if not more concerning. No doubt the lack of school will be manageable for some with no major adverse outcomes in terms of attainment but the outlook for our most disadvantaged children has the potential for being very bleak indeed and has shone a light on the fragility of life for many families and on the essential services upon which vulnerable families depend. Lockdown has for them quite literally meant being locked indoors (apart from the daily exercise) and locked out in terms of health and social care.

Many of these families have become invisible. Their visibility in normal times is through their reliance on schools, health and social systems and voluntary organisations. Accessing these has now become almost impossible despite pleas from officials delivering the daily CVID19 briefings that these services are open and available and should be used as usual. The growing crisis for the worst affected families will leave scars long after the virus has passed and a vaccine is found.

To give the identified issues a human touch I have spoken with a small group of families in my neighbourhood in the East End of Glasgow about their experiences and this is what they told me. Food insecurity is a major concern. Many were in receipt of free school meals/vouchers but some who are not eligible are now out of work or furloughed on a reduced income. Local food banks are reporting reduced stocks and you need a referral. Parents were also very worried about their children’s long term health due to lack of access to healthcare. Many felt that it was too risky to attend GP surgeries/A&E because of the virus and some younger children had missed routine vaccinations. Overall parents reported a significant decline in their own mental health due to anxiety and stress and were concerned about the effect this was having on their children. Grandparents who were in the shielded group or isolating for other reasons were greatly missed as they often provided a protective factor for children. Children in turn expressed their worry about loved grandparents becoming unwell and possibly dying. They also missed the company of friends and having something to look forward to. Living in tenement accommodation often sharing a bedroom with siblings and not being able to get outdoors as much was causing tension and arguments.

One or two women I spoke with were pregnant and reported not having attended ante natal appointments. They also expressed their concerns about the birth and how the experience might be different from the pre virus days. Rates of breast feeding here are low but without appropriate support will likely become nonexistent. Extended family support is vital at this time and women reported more post natal depression with all the consequences of that for the whole family.

Other issues were also brought to my attention. Parents are worried about nursery provision as it becomes clear that many private nurseries are not going to survive the pandemic for economic reasons. Older children expressed their concerns about the impact on their future of the alternative exam process. A few predicted an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies amongst teenagers. (Apparently there is a shortage of condoms. And the loss of free sanitary protection provided in school has added to girl’s anxiety).

The press and social media have highlighted the increase in domestic violence during the lockdown and this is a child protection issue. Children report incidences of violence, abuse and neglect. The sales of alcohol are up 22% some of which can be attributed to pubs being closed but nevertheless substance misuse and deteriorating mental health in the family home is a toxic mix that takes its greatest toll on children.

The lockdown has affected different age groups differently. For example over 70s in total lockdown although many of them are in excellent health compared with other younger people. Many older people don’t have pre existing medical conditions as I was reminded by my 82 year old male (they are more at risk with the Y chromosome!) friend who is defying the shielding because he only uses eye drops. Children are reported to become only mildly unwell if they contract the virus although some recent information has been issued regarding a rare reaction resembling toxic shock. BAME citizens are more vulnerable but they have not been told to stay at home unless it’s because of age or for medical reasons. This would clearly be discriminatory but I could conclude cynically that this is because the NHS probably wouldn’t function without them. People able to articulate how they feel about their rights being infringed do so and get heard. But not our children and young people. So is our nation in breach of the UNCRC as a consequence of all of this?

Scotland has got an Economic Recovery Group. It has A Framework for Decision Making. On 24th April Scottish Government published Coronavirus (COVID19): supporting vulnerable children and young people – data intelligence report. We now need immediate intervention through greater coordination of all services that includes children and parents to develop a Comprehensive Children’s Recovery Plan to ensure children’s voices are heard and their health, happiness and wellbeing is protected. We have a responsibility as a nation to build a better tomorrow for our children.

Hilary Long

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