In September 1939, almost 1.5 million people – including 800,000 schoolchildren – were evacuated from London and other metropolitan areas of Britain over the course of just three days. A year in the planning, the goal of Operation Pied Piper was to remove children from areas at high risk of aerial bombing during the second world war, and send them to live with hosts in rural communities. Decades later, we know that while mass evacuation kept children physically safe from the bombing, many suffered long-term emotional trauma as a result of the separation from their parents and the abuse some faced in their temporary homes.
Given what we know about child development today, such an endeavour would never be attempted. Yet from the vantage point of 2020, what is striking is that the wartime government was prepared to take on an enormously costly and logistically demanding operation – London alone had 1,589 evacuation points and trains ran out of London every nine minutes for nine hours – that they believed was in the best interests of the welfare of a generation.
If only the current government could combine the evidence we now have about how to protect the wellbeing of children with similar levels of energy and creativity, in the context of a very different sort of national crisis. But while there have been glimpses of evacuation-level feats – for example, the extraordinary rate at which Nightingale hospitals were built in a matter of weeks – none of that investment has been channelled into a generation of children and young people whose physical health is at low risk from Covid-19, but whose emotional, educational and economic wellbeing have been jeopardised more than any other age group’s.
The entirely foreseeable plight of thousands of first-year university students being forced to self-isolate in their halls is just the latest example of government indifference towards young people. This is a cohort that has already undergone significant hardship: they missed their last few months of school or college, were unable to sit their exams, and, until an embarrassing U-turn, were allocated A-level grades that in some cases bore no resemblance to what they had been predicted. The government’s science advisers have been warning for weeks that universities risked becoming hotbeds of Covid-19 transmission, and that managing this could not just be left to individual institutions. Yet students were promised a learning experience that would combine in-person and virtual teaching and encouraged to start university as normal, at a very normal pricetag.
The inescapable problem is that it is hard to envisage a more pandemic-friendly environment than the British university: hundreds of students from an age group likely to be asymptomatic, yet still highly infectious, living and socialising together in densely packed halls of residence. While universities have taken steps to make learning environments Covid-secure, how on earth do you do that in the kind of student accommodation that consists of tiny box rooms with shared facilities, designed for not much more than sleeping in, let alone self-isolation for weeks at a time?
Perhaps a massive nationwide investment in on-campus testing as well as quarantine blocks for those testing positive could have made something approaching a typical university experience possible, minus a lot of the socialising and student activities most young people go to university for. But the government would have been far better to level with young people: this pandemic means you are not going to have the experience this year we would have all wished; we are going to ask those of you who can to stay at home and stick to virtual learning for at least the first term, but in exchange we will waive your first year of tuition. Or it could have pushed back the start of the university year to January, a reform many have backed for years in any case, since it would allow young people to apply to university once they’ve already got their A-level results.
But that would have required both a national-level strategy and money. Instead, the government has passed the buck entirely to universities, which needed to bring students back in order to get their fees paid by the government. Education secretary Gavin Williamson did not even mention the student crisis when he spoke at a Conservative conference event on Monday night, yet found it within himself to rail against a “real danger to society”, no-platforming by student societies.
The unpalatable consequence of the government’s inaction is what’s happening as we speak: thousands of young people stranded in student digs, being told they are not allowed to go out even for exercise or to buy food, on pain of disciplinary action. You can see why a two-week rent rebate and a £50 Asda voucher doesn’t cut it. Students rightly feel like they have been duped into going to university for a massively below-par experience, and that they are adding to a mountain of debt to pay for the privilege. To add to the injustice, ministers have spent the summer insinuating that young people are to blame for an increase in the infection rate.
We’ve heard a lot about the plight of students because they are vocal and media-friendly: but the situation is no better for those children and young people not in a position to stick tongue-in-cheek posters up in the windows of their halls. Thousands of young people finished school or college over the summer, only to face grim prospects on the work front; the government’s jobs scheme for under-25s doesn’t start until November and the money set aside will cover a fraction of the young people out of work. It seems crazy that the government did not create a massive Rooseveltian job creation programme across the public and charity sectors for this cohort at the start of the summer.
As for younger age groups, just a tiny proportion of vulnerable pupils attended school before the summer: in order to prevent the educational attainment gap widening even further, the government should have launched a drive to get all children without the space or resources to learn at home back to school in May, and it should have paid theatre, arts and sports groups to put on a free programme of outdoor structured activities over the summer.
None of this is particularly radical: it would have just required some focus, investment and a little creativity. Children and young people can’t be insulated altogether from the pandemic, but there is so much that could have been done to try and mitigate its worst effects on their mental health, educational development and economic prospects.
• Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and an Observer and Guardian columnist