A Child Rights Crisis
‘Children are not the face of this pandemic,’ the UN said on 15 April, but ‘they risk being among its biggest victims.’ The policy brief predicted a sharp increase in child poverty globally; huge losses in child learning worldwide because of school closures and digital exclusion; risks to child safety from lockdown and ‘shelter in place’ measures; and threats to child health and survival from reduced household income, disrupted health services and the mental health toll of the pandemic. ‘Without urgent action,’ Unicef had warned earlier in April, ‘this health crisis risks becoming a child rights crisis.’
In the UK, not only are school closures having the predicted negative effect on education, especially for those already at risk of educational inequality, but the lockdown is affecting children’s mental health. The problems of inadequate housing are more pressing than ever. A child with an underlying health condition, for instance, faces a greater threat of contracting Covid-19 if they live in a B&B with a shared kitchen and bathroom.
Reduced access to school meals, together with drops in household income, has had a direct, dramatic effect on children’s food security. The Food Foundation reports that almost a fifth of households with children have gone hungry during lockdown. In the first two weeks of the pandemic, food banks in the Trussell Trust network experienced an 81 per cent increase in need compared to the same period in 2019, and a 122 per cent rise in the number of parcels it provided for children.
The number of domestic abuse killings appears to have doubled under lockdown, and calls to the NSPCC have gone up 20 per cent. Only a very small fraction of the pupils entitled to emergency school places are actually going to school during the pandemic: the risks of harm to children designated ‘vulnerable’ by the state are enormous.
Child poverty experts and advocates have flagged the inadequacy of existing benefit levels in terms of meeting the needs of families with children during the Covid-19 crisis. Even before the pandemic, child poverty – both absolute and relative – was projected to rise between 2015 and 2021, primarily because of planned tax and benefit reforms. It now seems set to soar.
Things are especially bad for children in England. Holyrood, the only devolved administration to have passed primary legislation in response to the pandemic, carried out a child rights and wellbeing impact assessment of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill. Westminster, by contrast, looked at the effect on children only as a limited part of its general impact assessment of the UK-wide Coronavirus Bill. The government has also made a number of ‘emergency’ changes to service provision for children in England. Alterations to social care regulations – laid before Parliament on 23 April and in force from 24 April – have significantly downgraded the legal protections for children in care. Other changes relax local authorities’ duties with regard to education, health and care plans for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Even if the changes turn out to be short-term, their impact on the large number of children affected by them will undoubtedly be long-term, and quite possibly lifelong. The UK government says the changes are ‘temporary’ – they are currently due to last until September – but there is no reason they would not be renewed for at least the duration of the Coronavirus Act. And, given Westminster’s resistance to remedying those aspects of austerity that have had a disproportionately negative impact on households with children (the benefit cap and the two-child limit, for instance), it is not unreasonable to suspect that these ‘temporary’ changes may be made permanent once the pandemic is over.
Children are emerging as the unforeseen – and, until very recently, largely unseen – victims of Covid-19 in the UK. The exact timing and form of the pandemic were not predictable. But many of its social, economic, educational and other effects on children – and poor children in particular – were. The crisis has laid bare and exacerbated long-term structural inequalities and social vulnerabilities in the UK. Children have been hit hard by Covid-19, in no small part because of ten years of fiscal austerity that have disproportionately hurt poorer households with children.