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Harm caused to children during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns was preventable - new report concludes

The loss of learning, freedom and hope to children during the Covid-19 pandemic could have been prevented if political leaders had better considered their rights and views, leading children’s rights organisations have claimed today.  

New report What About The Children? released by Save the Children, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and Just for Kids Law, and backed by former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, assesses the broad range of ways in which political leaders failed to sufficiently regard children’s needs during the pandemic. 

Findings suggest outcomes for children would have been different if decision makers had heeded warnings on the negative effects of school closures by experts and avoided measures that marginalised children, from the reopening of pubs before schools to the design of social restrictions that had a disproportionate impact on the youngest.

What about the children? is being released ahead of the Covid-19 Inquiry’s next session which will take evidence from key political figures in its Module 2 section that looks at decision making by the UK and devolved governments.

Children and teenagers are also speaking out today about their experiences of the pandemic in fresh testimony collected by Save the Children, with their accounts due to be handed to the Inquiry. One described their experience of lockdown and then settling back into education between 2020 and 2022 as “the worst [time] of their life”, others pointed out the “bubble system” stopped them having close contact with friends and the uncertainty about exams left them “on edge”. 

It is now 11 months since the Inquiry began and there is still no timetable set for when children and young people can have their say on how lockdown changed their lives*.

Dan Paskins, Director of UK Impact at Save the Children, said: “The UK’s pandemic policies harmed children and young people and this report concludes the dramatic impact on their wellbeing was avoidable.

"While all children were impacted by the pandemic, those who were already having a tough time were most likely to be failed by government policies. Decision-makers had lots of tough choices to make, and this isn't about blaming individuals, yet the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that lessons need to be learned and better systems put in place to protect children in future crises." 

Anne Longfield, former Children’s Commissioner and Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, who is backing the report said: “This report sets out in very stark terms how children were frequently at the back of the queue when the government made its biggest decisions about lockdown and reopening the economy. Three years on, and many children and families are paying the price for the mistakes that were made. 

"So many of the long-term problems arising from Covid could have been alleviated, or even prevented altogether, had the interests of children been made a top priority by government. This must never happen again.”

The report explores the following themes: how the prolonged and unplanned closures of nurseries and schools disproportionately affected children in poverty; how social distancing guidelines which forgot to mention children and play affected their mental health; and how decisions were made with an assumption that all children were in happy and secure homes.

One example of an early warning came from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in early April 2020** which urged governments entering into lockdowns to respect the rights of children to education, play and safety. 

Other examples listed in the report of decisions that unnecessarily curtailed children’s rights were:

·       The prioritisation of venues like pubs reopening before schools.

·       The 1:1 rule, where adults were allowed to meet a friend outside. Younger children that would have needed supervising were not able to do the same.

·       Grassroots sports clubs and other places for children’s activity remained closed while pubs and restaurants re-opened.

Three key recommendations to create a better environment for children and improve the structures around decision making in future, include:  

  • For the UK government to appoint a Cabinet Minister for Children and Young People, and make sure in times of crisis that they are involved in key decisions, so children’s interests are considered 
  • Pass a new law to make schools essential infrastructure so MPs have more oversight before schools can be closed 
  • Properly fund a Children’s Recovery Plan** to tackle the long-term effects on children’s social and emotional development and educational attainment caused by Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns  

Louise King, Director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, part of Just for Kids Law said: “The evidence in our report clearly shows that children suffered during the pandemic because the UK government failed to adequately consider their rights and interests.

“We need to see action now to mitigate the harm children have already suffered over the last few years, and permanent changes to make sure that mistakes aren’t repeated in the future - changes which place children at the heart of government decision-making.”

Emily, 15 from Devon, said: “Now when it comes to GCSEs I have huge gaps in all of my topics in all of my subjects and I feel like such an underdog.”

Talha, 19, from London, said: “I was sometimes on edge about never knowing when we would go back in person and knowing that we had these exams to do, and these exams would affect my university application.”



Notes to editor:  

*The Every Story Matters platform as part of the Covid Inquiry can only take submissions from over 18s, however the Inquiry released a statement on September 7 to say they would embark on a targeted research project to hear from young people.  

** UN Committee on the Rights of the Child statement April 8 2020. https://www.unicef.nl/files/INT_CRC_STA_9095_E.pdf

*** This report suggests the £13.5bn catch-up funding proposed by the Education Policy Institute is the correct amount to bring about meaningful change for children.

  • Save the Children, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and Just for Kids Law, are all core participants in the Covid Inquiry  

  • Six case studies of teenagers (print and pictures) reflecting on the pandemic are available
  • Children’s rights organisations and experts which have backed report What About The Children?

Professor Alison Clark, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, UCL London

Alliance for Youth Justice

Anne Longfield, former Children’s Commissioner and Chair of the Commission on Young Lives

Article 39

Buttle UK

Campaign for State Education

Carers Trust

Centre for Mental Health

Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education (CSIE)

Children and Young People's Mental Health Coalition

Children North East

Professor Cath Larkins, The Centre for Children and Young People's Participation, University of Central Lancashire

Professor Chris Pascal and Professor Tony Bertram, Directors, Centre for Research in Early Childhood

Coram Children’s Legal Centre

Disabled Children’s Partnership

Early Childhood Forum

The Fostering Network

Haringey Play Association

Professor Helen Lomax, School of Education, University of Huddersfield

The Howard League for Penal Reform


IPSEA (Independent Provider of Special Education Advice)

Just Fair

The Kids Network

London Play

The Markfield Project

The Mighty Creatives

NYAS (National Youth Advocacy Service)

No More Exclusions

North East Child Poverty Commission

Our Time

Playing Out


Refugee Education UK

Safer London

Special Needs Jungle

Together with Migrant Children

Together Trust

Us for Them

WBTi UK Steering Team

What About The Children?

Youth Access

Youth Focus North East