For decades, scientists had been saying that the world was overdue its next pandemic, yet when it came in 2020 it seemed the UK was far from prepared.
We are all far too painfully aware of what came next, yet perhaps the biggest impact was upon the young—ironically, the age group considered least at risk of complications through Covid.
The Children’s Inquiry: How the State and Society Failed the Young during the Covid-19 pandemic by Liz Cole and Molly Kingsley focuses on this theme in exacting detail, arguing with authority that the enforced school closures during the height of the pandemic were devastating to children in a myriad of ways.
Pulling no punches, the authors—co-founders of volunteer-led organisation UsForThem, which advocated for children’s needs and interests to be prioritised during the pandemic—state that the Government not only mishandled the national response to Covid but, worse, wilfully sacrificed the welfare of children to the benefit of adults.
While you may not come into this book agreeing with the authors’ insistence that school closures were unnecessary, the wealth of research and evidence they present suggesting that the mooted connection between schools and Covid transmission was overplayed, if not entirely unfounded, certainly provides food for thought.
And having interviewed a wide range of figures involved in the Covid response for their new book, Cole and Kingsley are able to share exclusive testimony from academics, politicians, scientists, educators, parents, and two former Children’s Commissioners—governmental advisers briefed with standing up for children’s rights and needs—which all align on one notable position: that school closures went on to long, and caused significant issues to children’s educational and personal development, not to mention their physical and mental wellbeing.
The Children’s Inquiry makes for sombre yet essential reading, offering a harrowing account of how policymakers were aware from previous studies and their own advisers’ guidance that prolonged school closures would lead to many children suffering in their education and social interactions, their health and happiness—with the serious risk of developmental delays and depression as a consequence—yet chose to press ahead anyway.
And as the book relates, numerous early studies on the Covid generation suggest that all these fears have, alas, been borne out. From babies to university students, they have suffered as a result, with the most disadvantaged suffering disproportionately.
For instance, we read how …
The impact on children has been devastating, resulting in a cohort which is unhealthier, unhappier and behind educationally relative to pre-2020, and leaving children’s services – many already at crisis point even before the pandemic – overwhelmed.
Teenagers, suffering a pre-pandemic wave of prior mental health issues, experienced an exacerbation of existing problems and an explosion of entirely new crises. Emergency referrals for crisis care increased by 62% compared to 2020, and in 2021 a staggering one million referrals of children were made for specialist mental health services.
Another study discussed in the book states that 46 percent of children who entered reception year in 2020 were not ‘school ready,’ compared to 35 percent in 2019.
Both authors have, under the guide of UsForThem, received a barrage of online abuse, but they respond by stating that society has always operated on the unspoken understanding that they should come first, and that to rip up this social contract is both a moral and political disgrace.
Their network now consists of thousands of parents, grandparents and carers—giving the authors a more rounded perspective on how the state’s response to the pandemic has affected children.
Time and again when reading The Children’s Inquiry, we come back to the author’s controversial yet not readily deniable view that those officials charged with protecting the young stood by and watched as they struggled, or slipped out of sight altogether.
As the authors succinctly put it, “They say it takes a village to raise a child, but in March 2020, that village slammed shut its gates.”
Indeed, you come away from The Children’s Inquiry with the distinct impression that when schools were closed, playgrounds taped up and play outlawed, children’s lives were closed down. This dereliction of duty should haunt us for decades to come.
They also highlight what they view as blatant and cruel hypocrisy in the treatment of children compared to adults.
For instance, in the summer of 2021, while key sporting events such as Wimbledon and Euro 2021 took place, children’s sports days were routinely cancelled.
Going further, they discuss how the young have been actively demonised and stigmatised by the powers that be as Covid spreaders, as well as being subject to gross transgressions of their dignity, such as being isolated from their classmates, having to wear masks (especially detrimental to deaf children), and made to eat their school dinners—when schools did start opening again—in the rain and cold.
In one extreme example, verging on if not already firmly in the realms of abuse, a Covid-symptomatic child was isolated in an outdoor classroom at school, subsequently catching hypothermia.
A picture of those tragic experiences, both for children and school staff, is captured succinctly in one teenager’s short yet powerful testimony:
It’s the fact everyone is so silent. It’s the way everyone is so depressed and anxious… It’s the feeling of constant loneliness because no one talks and no one’s reachable and no one’s doing anything to stop it and no one cares if you feel like this because the restrictions are “worth it”’.
It has to be said that all sections of the book are shocking, but there are some revelations that resonated more with me.
One of these concerns the scant scientific research that was used to endorse the use of mask-wearing in schools.
Indeed, it shows how when Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi was asked by a broadcaster four times, ‘What evidence do you have that it is necessary for children to wear face masks?’, Zahawi referred to an observational study of 123 schools—evidence roundly criticised by experts and the media, as the authors note.
The Children’s Inquiry also reminds us that the UK was far from alone in its questionable treatment of the young.
It states, as of September 2021, that schoolchildren worldwide have lost 1.8 trillion hours of in-person learning, a number which UNICEF calls “unfathomable”.
The authors do not shy away from the alarming truth that the consequences on children of school closures and other measures will be experienced for some time to come.
As they come to the close of The Children’s Inquiry, however, they do make some sensible recommendations on how to tackle the ticking social time bomb through urgent and comprehensive intervention.
And they also consider how such a situation could be avoided again. This all hinges around children being given greater representation in the halls of power so that the advice of scientists, psychiatrists, doctors, Children Commissioners, teachers and parents can never be dismissed by the Government so easily in the future.
To that end, they wish to see a Royal Commission on Childhood, “the sole remit of which will be to consider all possible options to enfranchise children’s interests in public life.”
Kingsley and Cole are adamant that in the last two years we have witnessed children being “robbed of their childhood” and, after reading The Children’s Inquiry, it’s difficult not to reach the same assessment whichever side of the political fence you are in.
One can only hope that lessons are learned, though the fact that the impact on children of school closures was not originally included in the Government-commissioned Covid-19 Inquiry’s ‘terms of reference’, currently being drawn together, does not bode well.
In summary, The Children’s Inquiry exposes the problems at the heart of policymaking which have led to the systemic and ongoing betrayal of children.
It’s a sincere and forensic appraisal of what went wrong which urges a commitment from stakeholders to reimagine, not just recover, childhood. As the authors state …
Education, and school, is crucial to children’s lives. Nowhere more than in the schools context is it more important for us to ask how we move beyond merely repairing to a future that allows children to thrive. It is clear that adults need to put their differences aside to work on solutions with creativity and energy.
Thoroughly researched and referenced, The Children’s Inquiry should be read by everyone, parents or not—and especially decision-makers—because you can get no better measure of a society than through its treatment of the young.
At present, the UK seems to be somewhere between a D minus and fail, and if that doesn’t make you angry and clamouring for change then most likely nothing will.
The Children’s Inquiry: How the State and Society Failed the Young during the Covid-19 pandemic by Liz Cole and Molly Kingsley (Pinter & Martin) and out now on Amazon or via Pinter & Martin. For more information on UsForThem, visit www.usforthem.co.uk.
Q&A INTERVIEW WITH THE CHILDREN’S INQUIRY AUTHORS MOLLY KINGSLEY AND LIZ COLE
Parents and children’s welfare campaigners Molly King and Liz Cole say that the Government’s pandemic response has effectively robbed children of their childhood, and that this is indicative of a wider disconnect between policymakers and the needs of our young. To mark the publication of their hard-hitting new book, The Children’s Inquiry, we spoke to them to find out more.
Q. Tell us about the goals of the UsForThem campaign?
A. When we started the campaign, our goals were straightforward: to restore normal schooling for children, and to have children prioritised in the pandemic response. Over time, our goals have evolved and we are now focused on how we support children in rebuilding after the pandemic, and increasing their leverage in policymaking.
Q. What were your backgrounds and motivations for launching the organisation?
A. We and our third co-founder, Christine Brett are all parents with no previous campaigning experience. We were motivated to launch the organisation because we felt there was an absence of voices advocating for children in the pandemic discourse, and we were horrified by what we could see unfolding. Over time we have been joined by many other parents.
Q. What motivated you to write The Children’s Inquiry?
A. There appears to be a desire by policymakers to move swiftly on from this disaster, and brush aside the devastating harms that have been caused to children by their decision to shatter the social contract to protect the young. In fact, not only do policymakers seem to wish to move on, in some quarters they wish to rewrite history. We cannot allow this to stand, and are putting this account on the record while proposing a way forward that properly safeguards children’s interests. We must face up to what has happened before any recovery can be possible.
Q. What was the biggest mistake in the Government’s pandemic response, and what have been the consequences?
A. The Government has made too many mistakes to list, but the biggest one was breaking with previous disaster planning and closing schools in lockstep with other countries. Such a prolonged period of school closures had not been previously considered, because the harms of such a move were known to be so catastrophic. Having closed them, there should have been a far greater sense of urgency in reopening them again, but the Government had opened a Pandora’s box by deliberately instilling a sense of terror into the population—which made it incredibly difficult for them to get schools open again. This stoking of fear was probably their second biggest mistake.
Q. Is it not the case that closing schools and playgrounds during the pandemic was necessary to prevent transmission of Covid?
A. This is a comfortable narrative—that the harm to children was inevitable—but there is limited evidence for the benefits of the course of action taken In his book, SAGE advisor Professor Mark Woolhouse said, “… the arguments for closing schools were that the children were at some risk, the staff were at high risk and that schools would drive community transmission, thereby raising the R number. None of these concerns were supported by the epidemiological data and surely we should expect compelling evidence before we took such a serious step as closing schools.”
The benefits were scant, but the harms were catastrophic for education, mental health, safeguarding, and physical health—again, an enormous mistake that the Government made was not weighing these completely foreseeable harms versus the indeterminate benefits, and not taking its responsibilities towards the young seriously. Ethics should also have played a role in decision-making.
Q. You say that the pandemic brought to light already existing issues with policymakers’ attitudes towards the welfare of children. How would you sum up this attitude, and why have policymakers been allowed to neglect children’s welfare for so long?
A. We would sum up this attitude as pure apathy and disregard. Children are not a political priority in this country. That needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Without political leverage, there will be no change—that’s the brutal reality. There are many passionate and dedicated people advocating for children’s interests in this country, and the fact that they haven’t been able to gain the traction they wanted is because there is no incentive or leverage to turn politicians’ words into actions.
Q. You are both parents of two. What were your children’s experiences of the pandemic?
A. We would prefer to respect our children’s privacy. Suffice it to say, our children are the lucky ones, but they found the last two years very difficult. Many have not been so fortunate.
Q. UsForThem has attracted both widespread support and widespread censure. Why do you think your position has proven so controversial?
A. The controversy has saddened and surprised us. For some reason, the issue of schools and children became highly politicised. Advocating for children and holding a pro-schools reopening position was characterised as being anti-union, and even anti-teacher. We have been subject to levels of vitriol and abuse that shock us to this day. On the other hand, we have been supported by many for speaking up at a time when few were doing so. Tens of thousands of parents support us for advocating for their children’s right to education and childhood.
Q. What would you like policymakers to take away from The Children’s Inquiry?
A. We’d like them to acknowledge the scale and severity of the disaster that they have caused to children and young people and take urgent, structural action to remediate it— where such remediation is possible. Beyond this, we would like policymakers to reflect on why it is that our children in the UK are some of the unhappiest in the Western world. We would like them to understand that a long-term, cross-party commitment and plan needs to be made not only for education, but for childhood. The rewards of this as a society are great, and the consequences of not doing so will be devastating—both economically and socially.
Q. What are your hopes and fears for the future?
A. We hope that lessons will be learned from this collective failure of children and that measures are put in place to better protect and safeguard children and their education in any disaster—such as Robert Halfon MP’s parliamentary bill (designating schools as essential infrastructure), reform to the role of the Children’s Commissioner and a Royal Commission—on how we enfranchise children in politics which we call for in the book.
We feel, at a visceral level, a fear that policymakers will want to brush the harms under the carpet and fail to take stock, or provide the appropriate investment that allows children to thrive. A future in which children continue to be relegated as an underclass is a very bleak one indeed for the children themselves and for society as a whole.