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Opinion: Society must repay its debt to the young

29 June 2021

Children's interests must now be paramount, with a particular focus on how to make up for their lost education, says Professor Russell Viner (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health).

Russell Viner

The Covid-19 lockdown was a curious reversal of the usual way in which adults make sacrifices for their children. The lockdowns and all the awfulness of the past year protected adults, particularly the elderly, against the virus, but we have known from early on that children and teenagers are at minimal risk. More than a year in, the tally-sheet across generations is very skewed and it is time we as a society recognised the debt we owe to young people.

Closing down our children’s lives has produced a rise in mental health problems, particularly eating disorders, anxiety and self-harm, together with sleep problems. We don’t yet have the data on the impact on childhood obesity levels, but we know poor diet and a lack of physical activity have been very common. Younger children are also behind in language and social development and teenagers have missed out on many key life events. People aged 16 to 24 have been hardest hit economically by the pandemic and were the most likely to be furloughed or out of work.

Children are naturally resilient. Some of these problems will be resolved as they go to school, play with friends and get back to ordinary life. But others won’t, particularly as the pandemic and its restrictions drag on. This is why we must act to ensure that these very real “wounds” don’t scar this generation.

Vaccinating adults has changed the Covid equation – in a way that makes the differences between generations even more stark. Soon we will all be free of most restrictions. Yet the virus will continue to spread in unvaccinated groups – and spread it definitely will. Children and (probably) teenagers will be the only substantial unvaccinated group – so schools and after-school socialisation will become the main places where the virus spreads. A Covid surge in the late summer or autumn after we fully relax restrictions is sadly almost inevitable, and this may lead to calls to continue or even strengthen controls when schools restart in September.

The key thing we must do for our children is give them back ordinary life as soon as we can. We can be proud that our governments adopted the mantra that schools should be the last to close and first to reopen in any lockdown, but we should take future school closures off the table except in the most extreme circumstances.

We should invest to improve conditions in schools – ventilation, space, hygiene – to lessen the need for controls such as bubbles that cut across friendship groups, disrupt ability streaming and can be disastrous for school sports. We need evidence-based safe testing systems that allow the least isolation possible for the fewest number of children when someone tests positive.

The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of health in schools. This is something we once knew but have forgotten. We need to reverse decades of decline in school-nursing services – but go further to re-imagine schools as places that promote health and wellbeing as well as attainments.

Let’s be honest, £15 billion for educational catch-up (that the Government decided not to invest) is a snip when compared with the over £300 billion we’ve spent on the pandemic to protect adults. More is needed, particularly focused on mental health, obesity prevention and recreating lost work opportunities.

Investing in young people will bring a triple dividend – benefits for children today, benefits in terms of the healthier and more productive adults they will become, and long-term benefits as today’s children will be the parents of our next generation.

Ultimately this means having a clear vision across government – and across society – that we owe it to them and to ourselves to invest in healing our children’s pandemic wounds. We need a strong voice for children and young people across Government, a cabinet minister with responsibility for children, and we should ensure that all Government decisions take account of their impacts upon children.

This article originally appeared in The Telegraph on 29 June 2021.

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