Prioritising reopening theme parks and Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme over schools in the pandemic was a “terrible mistake” and played a huge part in children’s negative lockdown experience, the Covid inquiry has heard.
Anne Longfield, who was children’s commissioner for England until February 2021, described the pandemic as having been a “disaster” for many disadvantaged and already vulnerable children, criticising the “indecisive” and even at times “indifferent” Government approach to the impact of policy decisions.
Ms Longfield said it was unclear whether the potential negative consequences of lockdowns were understood by decision-makers, or were “heard but were ignored and overlooked”.
Doubling down on this point when giving live evidence to the inquiry on Friday, she said the then-chancellor’s scheme offering discounts to encourage people to get back out to restaurants in summer 2020 had taken priority over schools reopening and future planning.
She told the hearing: “That, for me, was a terrible mistake and one which played a huge part in children’s very negative experience of the lockdown period.”
She said the pandemic had exposed the “precarious nature” many children were living their lives in and the levels of disadvantage across the country, but that the impacts were soon forgotten.
The machinery of Government was in no way “set up to be able to support children and represent their best interests”, she said, adding that it had been “very clear that there was no-one at the Cabinet table who was taking children’s best interests to those decisions”.
Her previous calls for a dedicated minister for children were met with a response that this came under the remit of the Education Secretary.
At the time this role was held by Sir Gavin Williamson, but Ms Longfield told the inquiry: “It was very clear he wasn’t part of some of those (decision-making) discussions. There was an empty chair at the table.”
These were the policy towards school opening and access to education; decisions about children’s ability to socialise and use public spaces; and decisions to reduce the safeguarding protection to vulnerable children receiving social care.
These decisions have increased the risk of reduced outcomes, wellbeing and life chances for children, she said, and may have increased vulnerability to harm “for some children who lost their life during the pandemic, not due to Covid, but due to violence”.
She accepted that initial school closures across the country were necessary, but added that the decision to keep them shut “for most children from March 2020 to September 2020, while at the same time increasing social interaction in other parts of society, was a major mistake”.
She added that there are questions to be answered “about the integrity of assumptions made” around the impact closing schools would have on virus spread as well as an “apparent lack of any serious recognition of the short-term and long-term harmful effects of prolonged school closures on children”, and an “apparent failure of the Government to prepare realistically for the scale and duration of school closures”, despite several weeks of warnings from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
She said while some children enjoyed initial benefits in the pandemic as families were able to spend more time together, the most vulnerable children faced increased problems.
She wrote: “For others, those children in poor cramped accommodation, those living on low income whose parents needed to go out to work, those living in vulnerable households with poor mental health, addiction and domestic violence, those living in poverty, those without access to the outdoors and those without access to the digital technology to access education or socialise with friends, this was a very difficult pandemic heightening existing vulnerabilities and laying the foundation for long-term problems.”
Ms Longfield said she had focused her advice to Government during the pandemic on reducing and mitigating the risks these children faced, but added: “Whilst Government appeared on occasions to understand the risks to the wellbeing of children, at least in part, their approach on too many occasions lacked coherence, was indecisive, and at times appeared indifferent to the impact of policy decisions.”
She added: “It is not clear whether the potential negative impact of lockdown and social distancing, along with other measures and decisions affecting children on children’s social care, health and family support services were heard and fully understood by those making decisions, or whether they were heard but were ignored and overlooked.”