Babies, children and young people make up a third of all people in the UK. While the vast majority of children were not at high risk from the virus itself, they paid a high price during the pandemic.
Alongside lengthy school closures and social isolation, many were deprived of the ceremonies and events that form an intrinsic part of grieving the death of a loved one. And the suspension of business-as-usual activities in social care and other areas hit them hard too.
It was therefore a glaring omission when children were virtually invisible in the original terms of reference published by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry. It is grimly ironic that children, so often an afterthought during the pandemic, became an afterthought for the inquiry set up to examine the response to the pandemic as well.
Still, the redrafted terms of reference, now submitted to the Prime Minister for approval, are a marked improvement.
The health and wellbeing of children and young people will now be expressly covered by the Inquiry. The impact of the pandemic on children bereaved by Covid-19 and other causes, and the support available to them, will also be considered. Decisions relating to children’s social care, schools, and early years provision will be examined. Crucially, the exacerbation of existing inequalities, so painfully exposed by the pandemic, will be at the forefront of the inquiry.
Ultimately, when it comes to decision-making about children there are two crucial questions the inquiry must grapple with:
- To what extent did the government take the welfare and rights of children into account when taking measures to control the spread of the virus?
- Where children were adversely affected, were the steps taken to mitigate the impact of these measures the right ones?
Education settings were closed to all except vulnerable children. Community services, including health visitors and therapies, were de-prioritised. And children in residential settings faced additional constraints on their freedoms - including those at residential schools, children’s homes, and the youth justice estate.
The families of disabled children were put under unimaginable strain as vital support was cut away and many were left to fend for themselves. Poorer children fell further behind their peers in education. Children who were already vulnerable were put at even greater risk of severe injury and even death.
It is true we faced an unprecedented national crisis, but it is also vital we understand why these decisions were taken, whether they were proportionate, and if we had the right evidence to make these decisions as effectively as possible.
As someone who worked closely with government and arms-length bodies throughout the pandemic, I cannot speak highly enough of the commitment and integrity of the officials I worked with: this must not be a process that seeks to apportion blame.
Nevertheless, it is crucial we ask the difficult questions and put in place the structures to put children at the heart of decision-making during the next national emergency.