A group of 50 clinicians and scientists has urged the COVID-19 public inquiry to include how the Government handled children during the pandemic in its investigation

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‘The draft terms of reference for the COVID-19 public inquiry must be revised to include the effect of the pandemic response on children and young people,’ a group of 50 scientists and clinicians have urged in a letter to The Times.

‘There is no doubt that school closures and broader lockdowns harmed children,’ they said. Yet, other than a single mention of ‘restrictions on attendance at places of education’, children are ‘almost entirely missing from the draft’.

The inquiry, chaired by Baroness Hallett, will review the preparations and response to the pandemic in the UK, together with lessons learnt. It is being established under the Inquiries Act 2005, meaning it will have a high degree of formality, with the power to compel witnesses to give evidence and provide legal safeguards, among other things.

The draft terms were published on 10 March 2022, and are open for public engagement and consultation until 7 April 2022.

Pandemic response ‘focused on adults and broadly forgot about children’

The letter to The Times highlighted the damage done to children and young people by pandemic measures, including increases in mental health problems and childhood obesity rates. It pointed out that educational losses were most marked in deprived and vulnerable children.

‘It was right that our pandemic responses focused on protecting those most vulnerable to COVID,’ the authors said. ‘However, we must examine whether measures for schools were proportionate and equitable.’

They concluded: ‘The COVID-19 inquiry must above all include the voices of children and young people themselves, something that was all too often missing from our pandemic responses.’

The letter’s lead signatory, Russell Viner CBE, Professor of Child and Adolescent Health at University College London’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, told Medscape UK that one of the key concerns was that the enquiry ‘must not repeat the mistakes that our response to the pandemic made’.

‘The response focused on adults and broadly forgot about children,’ he said. ‘It would be a hugely disappointing—devastating—for the pandemic inquiry to do exactly the same thing.’

Learning loss, higher obesity, and poorer mental health

Professor Viner acknowledged the importance of direct harm to adults, economic harms, and bereavements, but highlighted the indirect harms to children and young people, and the indirect effects on teenagers in particular: ‘[Pandemic measures] impacted almost all areas of their lives.

‘We know there was a significant learning loss, and that was greatest among the poorest in our society and also among more vulnerable children, [such as] those with special educational needs.

‘Children suffered not only from education loss, but also from poorer mental health—which is clearly linked to school closures—and poorer physical health. Their diet has been much poorer and childhood obesity rates have rocketed. Also children have been generally held back in their development—we hear this clearly from teachers.’

Four-year-olds starting school are less mature and more anxious, Professor Viner said, and similarly a lot of children are finding the transition to secondary school more difficult.

‘Children are highly resilient and many will recover,’ he said, ‘but I’m concerned that children from some of the more vulnerable, the poorest parts of our society, will recover least. Educational catch up is not guaranteed. I think what the pandemic will leave us with is greater inequalities.

‘A lot of children will catch up and it will be particularly children from wealthier families, where parents have more resources to help with their physical and mental health. I think the gap between rich and poor will be greater, and this will harm our society and harm our children in the long run.’

Children’s social development has also been impaired, and although Professor Viner believes they will prove resilient, he warned that society needs to be aware of this generation’s needs: ‘One of the things that COVID taught us is the importance of links between health and education—these should be restored. The Government needs to invest back into mental health in schools: I think that needs to be put on steroids.’

The letter’s other signatories include: Dr Adrian James, President, Royal College of Psychiatrists; Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow; Professor Sir Simon Wessely FRS, Regius Professor of Psychiatry, King’s College London; Sir Anthony Seldon, Emeritus Professor, University of Buckingham; Professor Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, Former Children’s Commissioner for England, Past President British Medical Association; Professor Tim Dalgleish, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge; and Professor Neena Modi, President, British Medical Association and Professor of Neonatal Medicine, Imperial College London.

This article was originally published on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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