Coronavirus: Children must be at the ‘forefront’ of Covid-19 planning

Nicole Weinstein
Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Children ‘must be put at the heart of planning’ for future lockdowns, England’s Children’s Commissioner says.

Children's commissioner Anne Longfield
Children's commissioner Anne Longfield

Anne Longfield outlines the ‘rising tide of childhood vulnerability’ caused by the Covid-19 crisis over the last six months in a new report, ‘Childhood in the Time of Covid’.

She calls for a comprehensive ‘recovery package’ to help children, especially the most vulnerable, deal with the ongoing crisis.

Central to this package must be ‘significant investment’ in early help for families starting from the early years.

The report also calls for an emergency recovery package for early years providers to allow them to stay open, including additional catch up funding.

Ms Longfield said that children have suffered ‘disproportionately’ from the nation’s efforts to contain the virus and the nation’s efforts to ‘build back better’ must begin with a focus on children, sometimes ‘sadly lacking’ during the pandemic.


She added, ‘
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.’

In the event of further lockdowns, the report recommends that the Government, local authorities and police should ‘make clear’ that children are allowed to play in public green spaces and should not be 'moved on'. It also states that the availability of green space for children should be maximised, which at a minimum, should mean ‘no closure of parks’.

Another recommendation includes the provision of holiday schemes over the coming year, which should be granted ‘clearly and early’, particularly if social distancing measures remain in place next summer, the report states.

When it comes to the 'rule of six', the Children’s Commissioner recommends reviewing it, over time,  with a view to exempting children under the age of 12 and allowing households with children aged 12 and under to play together.

VULNERABLE CHILDREN

Even before the crisis struck, the report estimates that there were 2.2 million children in England living in households affected by any of the so-called 'toxic trio' of family issues: domestic abuse, parental drug and/or alcohol dependency, and severe parental mental health issues, including nearly 800,000 children living with domestic abuse and 1.6 million living with parents with severe mental health conditions.
It says, ‘These numbers are likely to have swelled, fuelled by families locked down in close quarters for weeks and months, and an emerging economic crisis adding pressures on family finances.’

Young children from poor backgrounds already have lower educational outcomes than their peers by the age of five, yet ‘no funding has been made available to help children in nurseries and early years settings catch up on all the early education they have missed’, the report states.

It adds, ‘This will not only affect these children’s life chances, but also the financial viability of early years settings, which are already struggling. There is currently a threat of widespread closures in the sector: 24% do not expect to be operating in a year’s time, rising to 34 per cent in the most deprived areas.’

SECTOR RESPONSES

Commenting on the report, Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said, ‘The Government must action the recommendations that the Children’s Commissioner makes to ensure children do not suffer any further as a result of this pandemic. Children must be their number one priority.

She added, ‘
This includes making sure that all early years settings stay open and in order to do that, they are given an emergency recovery package.

‘Many early years providers stayed open throughout lockdown despite making a loss in order to provide emergency childcare for frontline workers. They were the fourth emergency service and this must be recognised. Childcare businesses must be given catch up funding while their income is low and their business costs are higher in order to provide a safe environment. The Government must also carry out a review into fair funding rates to make sure that providers can at least cover their costs going forward.’
The report acknowledges that is regular and rapid Covid-19 testing and tracing for children and those working with them is key to keeping services open.

Ms Tanuku said, ‘It’s vital that all early years workers - including those in private and voluntary nurseries - have priority access to testing. Nurseries should not be forced to close while they are waiting for staff to be tested. They should receive the same support which is offered to schools and maintained settings.’
Donna Molloy, director of policy at the Early Intervention Foundation, said that t
he children’s commissioner is ‘right’ to call for greater investment in early help and this will be ‘essential’ to minimising the impact Covid-19 is having on many children’s life chances.

She added, ‘The pandemic has undoubtedly placed huge added pressures on already depleted local services, designed to support these children. This means we must urgently support local government, schools, the NHS and the police to deliver high quality support suitable to meet the needs of a greater number of vulnerable children and families.’

CROSS-GOVERNMENT STRATEGY

The commissioner has recommended a cross-government strategy for the early years. This should include a Family Guarantee for under-fives and their families, with joined-up support based around a national infrastructure of Children and Family Hubs.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said that a good way to mitigate the damage caused by coronavirus for young children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is by investing in early years education and family services. He added, ‘In addition, social care and health-led provision for pupils with SEND needs to be fully reinstated as soon as possible.’

The Local Government Association is calling on the Government to use the forthcoming Spending Review to properly resource councils to enable investment in ‘local safety nets’ and the universal and early help services, including mental health and wellbeing services, that children, young people and their families will need to support them through the short and long-term impacts of the pandemic.

Councillor Judith Blake, chair of the LGA Children and Young People Board, said, 'The Government should also work with councils and schools to reduce the attainment gap, including immediate work to stabilise the early years sector and support children and young people to attend school or to continue learning from home where required.’

FUTURE LOCKDOWNS

The report concludes that children should be put at the heart of planning for further local or national lockdowns.

It states, ‘The Government has echoed calls from the Children’s Commissioner that schools should be the last to close and the first to re-open in further lockdowns. The full range of services used by children must also be prioritised in this way, with children’s centres and family hubs able to remain open and visits from social workers and health visitors continued as far as possible.’

Below is a list of recommendations made in the report specific for early years:

In the event of further lockdowns

  • Guidance should make clear that babies and young children should be prioritised for visits in person from professionals such as social workers and provide adequate PPE for these to take place. 
  • Local Authorities should monitor in real time the levels of referrals to children’s social care, in order to identify levels of unidentified need.
  • Greater information sharing between agencies, supported by central government, should be enabled to ensure proactive outreach to vulnerable families.
  • In any future lockdown, early years education settings and health services should be kept open and visits should continue wherever possible.

 

Towards long term recovery

  • Resources must be provided to allow missed health contacts and other outreach from early years services to take place, and to fully restore health visiting services. 
  • An emergency recovery package for early years providers needs to be developed to allow them to stay open, including additional catch up funding.
  • A cross-government strategy for the early years is needed. This should include a Family Guarantee for under-fives and their families, with joined up support based around a national infrastructure of Children and Family Hubs.

 

The full report is available here

 

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