The children’s commissioner for England has called on the government to exempt under-12s from its “rule of six” for social gatherings, in a wide-ranging new report that lays bare the damaging impact of the pandemic on children.
As Covid restrictions tighten across the country, Anne Longfield argued that children’s right to play together after months of isolation should be preserved, warning that limits on individuals from different households meeting should not apply to children under 12.
The rule of six, which limits meeting indoors and outdoors to six people, came into effect a fortnight ago, but similar restrictions in Wales and Scotland – introduced to curb the surge in coronavirus cases – do not include children under 11 and 12 respectively.
Longfield, whose term in office comes to an end next year, said children had suffered disproportionately as a result of lockdown measures – particularly the most vulnerable – and called on the government to come up with a comprehensive recovery package for the most disadvantaged, including welfare and housing support to avoid a wave of family homelessness.
Without additional government action, the commissioner warned that Covid-19 would trigger an “intergenerational crisis” with the economic impact of the pandemic on parents determining the future prospects of their children.
And she criticised the fact that the most vulnerable children had seen their rights downgraded at a time when protections should have been increased, calling for any continuing measures to be reversed.
Emergency coronavirus legislation introduced by the government reduced hard-won legal protections, for example, relaxing the timescales for social worker visits to children in care and the legal requirement for the provision of special support services to children with special educational needs and disabilities, outlined in an education, health and care plan.
The report, Childhood in the Time of Covid, argues that the £20 increase in universal credit and working tax credit for families, due to expire in April next year, should be retained, and an additional £10 per week child payment introduced.
It also calls for increased investment in early intervention services, the troubled families programme and health visitors, grouped in local family hubs, and says the government’s £1bn education catchup fund should be spent on vulnerable and disadvantaged children, not PPE or supply teachers.
With 41% of children having reported feeling more stressed about schoolwork and exams after schools closed to most in March, Longfield recommends a greater focus on pastoral care in schools. She also wants to see summer exams pushed back and respite services for disabled children and their families protected.
“Children have fewer health risks from Covid-19 and yet they have suffered disproportionately from the nation’s efforts to contain the virus,” said Longfield.
“Unless the government acts now, Covid-19 is in danger of becoming an intergenerational crisis, with the impact of the economic fallout on parents determining the future prospects of their children.”
Commenting on the report, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This academic year cannot be education as normal. Schools and colleges will need to be at the heart of ensuring that children and young people get the pastoral care and positive learning experiences they need.”
Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic, we have taken action, including introducing the rule of six, to get the virus under control and to avoid the need to introduce any stricter measures.
“Supporting children and their wellbeing has been central to our coronavirus response, including getting pupils back to school. We have also invested significantly in charities working with vulnerable children and our £1bn Covid catchup fund will help tackle the impact of lost time in education.”