Covid lockdowns were necessary – but the pain they caused families is being shamefully ignored

The fact that children suffered terrible mental health issues during the pandemic is being glossed over in the wake of Matt Hancock-gate

James Moore
Thursday 09 March 2023 12:29 GMT
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Is it just me or does the endless mining of Matt Hancock’s pandemic messages miss the point a little bit?

The trove of correspondence, leaked to the Daily Telegraph by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, has spearheaded a pretty depressing debate about Covid lockdowns.

A deeply cynical attempt is being made to re-write history and gloss over the fact that Britons died in large numbers from a killer virus that nearly broke the NHS. It also involves the trashing of science (yet again). Meanwhile, Westminster’s disturbingly large corps of second raters are jumping on the bandwagon (those that weren’t already on it, of course).

Watching this play out, I can’t help but remember watching my wife struggling to breathe on the day I caught original strain of Covid shortly after lockdown began. It was perhaps the most frightening day of my life since finding myself under the wheels of a cement truck.

As my colleague Sean O’Grady put it: How dare anyone demand an apology for Covid lockdowns. They were horribly painful. They were also necessary.

However, those lockdowns inevitably had consequences – particularly for children – which are being ignored. Teachers and parents I’ve talked to have told stories of disturbing developments among those who started school just prior to the first one.

Their socialisation was disrupted. Friendship groups were fractured. It was particularly hard on autistic children, for whom routine is often vital. This is an issue my family continues to grapple with to this day.

In response, we seem to have engaged in a collective national shrug: kids, eh? They’re resilient. They’ll get over it.

Some haven’t – notably those with pre-existing mental health issues. They were grossly exacerbated through suddenly being torn from school and thrust into a disturbing new normal.

This was hard enough for those with stable home lives and parents able to cope with living on top of each other with little respite available for weeks on end. It was incalculably worse for those where parental relations were strained if not abusive.

The result is that some children have fallen out of school.

It should be stated that school is not a good environment for every child – a point forcefully made by Not Fine in School, an organisation set up to support parents of children with attendance issues. This has always been the case, and they have long been let down.

But the pandemic has added a whole new dimension to the problem. The government could and should have recognised it. But it has not.

Instead, it has pursued an aggressive attendance policy, leaning on schools and local authorities to drop bricks on families with barely a pretend paper shield to protect them. Fines – even jail time – have been threatened. A postcode lottery has (inevitably) emerged with respect to that.

Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, this week stirred the pot, telling MPs on the Education Committee there was “a huge amount” of absence on Fridays when “mum and dad are at home” that “wasn’t there before”.

The implication was that this is a problem caused by hybrid working, and that soft parents are letting their kids stay home and play computer games. This betrays a disturbing lack of understanding. Believe me, if you work from home you do not want the kids around unless it’s absolutely essential.

According to the Office for National Statistics, it isn’t as common as the acres of coverage given to it would suggest anyway. Coming out of lockdown, while the proportion of workers hybrid working rose from 13 per cent in early February 2022 to 24 per cent in May 2022, the percentage working exclusively from home fell from 22 per cent to 14 per cent in the same period. This is still a minority game – and one more likely to be played by higher earners.

Dame Rachel has previously said parents should have “nothing to fear” when seeking support for whatever their children’s reasons for being absent may be. She has also told councils to do more to promote what is available.

The trouble is, that doesn’t really amount to much. Take it from me, Dame Rachel: I’ve been there. I’ve done the hours hanging the on phone, spent the hours writing letters, I’ve sent the emails, I’ve dealt with the painful headaches and sleepless nights that result from engaging in a guerrilla war against uncaring officialdom.

The biggest problem with Matt Hancock-gate and the so-called “debate” which has emerged over lockdown in its wake? It is whitewashing the government’s miserable failure to address the consequences of lockdown, and its inadequate help for those at the sharp end of those consequences.

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