25 March 2022
Dear Baroness Hallett,
Children and the Covid-19 Inquiry
We are writing as a collective of organisations and individuals to call on you to rectify the omission of children from the terms of reference of the Covid-19 Inquiry.
The stated aims of the Covid Inquiry are to “examine the Covid-19 response” and “identify the lessons to be learned”. If we are genuinely committed to these aims, the impact of the past two years on children – those for whom the risk of severe disease was generally speaking lightest, but for whom the toll has in some respects been greatest – must be fully and appropriately considered. To reduce these impacts to a single-line reference to “restrictions on attendance at places of education” is inadequate, threatening as it does to brush the burden shouldered by children under the carpet.
In particular, the following areas must be included as part of the Inquiry:
For most pupils, schools were closed, and they were closed for lengthy periods, longer than in any other European country bar Italy. Most children missed over half a year of normal, in-person schooling during the pandemic – likely to be more than 5% of their entire time in school. The consequences of this will live with some children for life and extend far beyond just educational attainment, much though this is an important part. The 100,000 children now persistently absent from school comprise just one example of the devastating cost of the past two years. The link in health economics between even relatively short periods of absence from school and health outcomes in later life is well documented. The apparent failure of the recovery plan makes these questions more, not less, important.
The decision-making processes around school closures both at the time of the March 2020 lockdown and then again in January 2021, particularly the cost/benefit analysis at the core of those decisions, must feature front and centre in the Inquiry.
In addition, the part of the Inquiry dealing with school closures must include consideration of lack of preparedness of schools for a national emergency; the poor digital infrastructure in place for online learning and poor access to digital devices; the lack of priority given to education and schooling in relation to broader societal priorities; and whether schools must now be classified by law as ‘essential infrastructure’, as called for by Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP.
Children outside of educational settings
By only referring to children at places of education, the Inquiry risks failing to consider the impact of the response on babies and young children outside of formal educational settings. It is also not clear whether Government considers educational settings to include providers within the Early Years sector, or if it is restricting its definition to settings delivering education to children of compulsory school age and above only. Any omission of Early Years care, education and support would be deeply concerning given what we know of the importance of brain development in the first few years of life and the emerging concerns around the impact of our Covid restrictions on that development. 
Early Years Providers have come under increasing financial pressure and the sector – critical not only to children but to working parents – now fears for its long-term financial stability. The challenge of staff retention has been exacerbated, which leads to less qualified staff and poorer outcomes for our children.
Impact of wider pandemic measures including cancellation of physical activities, play and sports
Whilst school closures must form a key part of the Inquiry, other pandemic restrictions also had a severe and widespread impact on children, especially the cancellation of physical activities, play, and children’s sport and the locking up of outdoor playgrounds, which we now know led to an unprecedented deterioration in children’s physical and mental health.
Deterioration in children’s mental health
One million children were referred last year to specialist mental health services , and it is feared 1.5 million children are at risk of being unable to speak at an appropriate age level. The narrative which led to the labelling of children as “vectors” and “Granny Killers” positioned children as a threat to society. This corrosive message will be hard to reverse.
The impact of decisions on children’s social care, including virtual social work
Tragically, the pandemic response involved a systemic suspension of the social work protections for children. As we now know, the result was to make many vulnerable children less visible at the point at which risk factors for child maltreatment were heightened. We have seen a marked increase in serious harm incidents due to known and suspected abuse or neglect in 2020, including tragic and high-profile fatalities. Many of these harms were not only predictable but predicted, and scrutiny of the impact of decisions on children’s social care must form part of the Inquiry to ensure that children are better protected in future emergencies.
The absence of urgency to maintain children’s health, including limiting face-to-face interactions with health visitors
As the letter to The Times from experts in child health makes clear, there is now significant pressure on paediatric mental health services and rates of child health issues and obesity are soaring. Professionals observe that children present with serious illness and development issues later, making treatment harder. This is a direct reaction to the pandemic and its response. Making good on this deficit is urgent, and investment is now critical across health visitors, therapies for SEN and disabled children, a preschool vaccination programme as ambitious as that for the Covid-19 vaccines, the backlog of operations and developmental assessments and the parity of esteem for children’s mental health. The Inquiry must look at these impacts and the lack of urgency throughout the pandemic in maintaining children’s health.
Baroness Hallett, childhood is a short season, and the need to understand how to prevent such adverse impacts on children in any future emergency and how we can best help children of all ages recover and flourish as we move out of the pandemic is now urgent.
It is for this reason that we have suggested that the issues raised not only be considered but be investigated as the most pressing, or even a standalone part, of the Covid-19 Inquiry. To help assist you in your thinking, we will be sending amended terms for the Inquiry which include the matters we have raised in this letter.
Our pandemic response over the past two years has consistently, and at times devastatingly, deprioritised the education, health and welfare of children in relation to their adult custodians. We owe a collective duty to children to correct course, and to do so swiftly.
Please help us to ensure this happens.
Former Children’s Commissioners
Anne Longfield CBE, Former Children’s Commissioner for England
Sir Aynsley Green, Former Children’s Commissioner for England
Molly Kingsley, UsForThem
Emily Konstantis, CEO Safeguarding Alliance
Neil Leitch, CEO Early Years Alliance
Steve Chalke MBE, Oasis Charitable Trust
Dan Paskins, Director UK Impact, Save The Children
Ingrid Skeels, Co-Director, Playing Out CIC
Gavin Rice, Policy Director, Centre for Social Justice
Graham Brady MP (Chair of the 1922 Committee)
Robert Halfon MP (Chair of Education Select Committee)
Tim Loughton MP (Former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families)
Marcus Fysh MP (Chair of the APPG Education)
Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP
Miriam Cates MP
Bob Blackman MP
Greg Smith MP
Chris Green MP
Anne Marie Morris MP
Caroline Nokes MP
David Warburton MP
Graham Stringer MP
Emma Lewell-Buck MP
Munira Wilson MP
Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester
Baroness Fox of Buxley (Claire)
Baroness Foster of Oxton
Dr Rosie Gray, registered forensic psychologist
Dr Claire McGuiggan, principal educational psychologist
Dr Rosalind Berry, registered forensic psychologist
Dr Hannah Dawson, registered and chartered forensic psychologist
Dr Jayne Allam, chartered and registered forensic psychologist
Dr Sarah Laulik, registered forensic psychologist