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The lost children of lockdown

From babies to teenagers, the Covid-19 pandemic is doing profound – and often invisible – harm to Britain’s young people.

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This article reports on incidents of abuse.

Minny*, a social worker for a London council, was recently making daily visits to a family out of concern for the children’s welfare. A ten-year-old child in the household told how her mother had slapped her across the face, and she had knocked her head on the cooker as a result. “Good,” her mother told her. “That’s what you get.”

A couple of days later, the girl changed her story. “Oh no, I was wrong, everything’s fine – I was just saying that because I was frustrated.” She asked if her mother would go to prison.

“It was clear that the parent had spoken to the child who has then made a retraction,” Minny tells me.

Lockdown and Covid-19 restrictions have made life harder for this family. “This child is just spending more time at home,” Minny says. “She was previously doing athletics and a football club, spending more time at school. The mother is no longer working because of the lockdown, so she’s at home, and the stresses are heightened because of the financial implications of lockdown for this family. They’re a big family of multiple generations in small accommodation.”

Many vulnerable children of this age have found the pandemic “especially difficult”, Minny adds. “They’re the ones who access a lot of clubs and things after school, which now they’re not able to access.”

***

Minny is on the front line of an invisible crisis. Children have been put at risk by school closures in the first lockdown in England, services closing down or going digital only, as well as the other stresses placed on families amid the pandemic.

During the first lockdown in England, everything except child protection assessments was restricted to digital meetings or phone calls for Minny and her team. Children’s vulnerability was categorised as high, medium and low: the highly vulnerable received weekly phone calls, the medium fortnightly, and so on.

Even with the mandatory face-to-face visits for child protection, it was difficult for Minny to work out what was happening behind closed doors.

“Some parents didn’t want you coming into their home, they didn’t feel comfortable,” she says. “We were doing doorstep visits in PPE, and then the mother, father or carer would bring the child to the door – kind of parading them. But obviously what you see at the door is just one snapshot, it doesn’t give you a whole picture of what’s going on in the home.”

“Doorstep visits don’t give the full picture of what’s going on at home”

In a speech on 6 November, the head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman revealed that over the summer, with schools closed and health visitors working in the acute sector, “referrals to children’s social care dwindled in some places”.

“Helping the children you are aware of during a pandemic is a challenge in itself,” she said. “But you can’t care for those you can’t see. And just because the phone isn’t ringing, it doesn’t mean that children aren’t suffering.”

Maris Stratulis, the national director of the British Association of Social Workers in England, is “concerned that the needs of vulnerable children and young people are not being met during times of restrictions and national lockdowns”.

She reports that social workers across the country are encountering “stored-up harms from lockdown, including domestic abuse, parental substance misuse, mental health issues and sexual harm”. To counter this, she is urging the government to focus on long-term investment in social care, and to ensure social workers have regular access to testing, and vaccine priority, to increase in-person visits.

Figures collected by the Department for Education (DfE) show a worrying drop in the number of social care referrals during the first national lockdown – and overall this year figures are down 11 per cent compared with the three previous years. The Local Government Association says councils had serious concerns about the drop in referrals, and were trying to identify children who may be at risk, many of whom would normally have been identified at school.

 

Despite schools returning in September, referrals are still below the three-year average, though August saw increases above the usual level.

Ofsted found that while a post-lockdown spike in demand has not occurred as expected, many councils said they were expecting a spike in the medium to long term.

During this current lockdown, the split of Minny's visits is 70 per cent virtual, 30 per cent in person.

“For the virtual visits, you need somebody to do a tour of the house on video,” she says. “They’re going from room to room but obviously you’ve planned these calls, so it doesn’t give a true picture. They know we’re calling at 4pm, so they can make sure the house is tidy at 4pm. And if you’re calling people, they might not answer. Whereas when you do an unannounced visit in person, you’re catching people off-guard.”

“When children miss school, we’ve lost an extra pair of eyes and ears”

When schools closed, referrals to Minny’s social service plummeted. Even since they reopened, there are still children sent home to self-isolate, or kept at home by shielding family members.

In one such case, there is a history of domestic violence in the family. The child is “spending more time at home, and everybody’s at home more”. Minny says domestic violence is “much easier to hide; it’s really difficult to accurately assess. Even when you go into the home, face to face, these things can be really well hidden. So it’s even harder when you’re resorting to virtual visits.”

The child has been out of school for the entire period, Minny says, “so that’s an extra pair of eyes we’ve lost”. “Often, we get referrals from or concerns raised at school, so these children who are now not in school – that was a pair of eyes and ears that we’d lost.”

***

Schools remained open to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers during the original lockdown. Yet attendance by the former group was very low. Just 5 per cent of all vulnerable children – including those with child protection and care plans – attended schools in England and Wales over Easter.

 

With schools now open again, vulnerable children are less likely to be attending than their peers, according to the latest figures from the DfE. Attendance across the board is still far below usual levels, with around one in five pupils not turning up for lessons, according to a survey of school leaders.

While many of these absences will be due to coronavirus cases and pupils being forced to self-isolate, not all of them are: Ofsted reports that half of schools have seen a rise in the number of children either not attending school or now being home-schooled.

“There’s been an increase locally and nationally in elective home education – it’s a growing tide,” says Jules White, the headteacher of Tanbridge House secondary school of 1,600 pupils in west Sussex. “You could argue that’s for good reasons, but sometimes that is children who do then disappear off the radar. I think that is a worry.”

“With home schooling, some children disappear off the radar”

White, who runs the WorthLess? network of headteachers campaigning for fairer funding, is calling for the government to consult and communicate better with schools over its pandemic response. Frequent last-minute rule changes make life harder for teachers and pupils alike.

“There are the parents who are very, very dedicated to the child’s education and then a percentage who just don’t want the school to be ringing and don’t want their child to be in formal education or have issues over attendance or behaviour,” he says. “They’re the ones you want to capture; they’re the ones you do want in school.”

White describes school as an “emergency service”, and warns that “kids can’t learn unless they feel safe and happy and secure, and that’s the crucial element”.

The schools watchdog reports children are regressing, forgetting potty-training and basic skills such as how to use cutlery, losing reading and writing skills and physical fitness. In a survey of early years providers, more than half said that they had noticed children falling behind in personal, social and emotional development during the first national lockdown.

 

When White’s more vulnerable pupils returned to school for one-on-one sessions as the initial lockdown was eased, “they were out of sync”, he says. “We’ve definitely seen more outbursts of worrying behaviour, youngsters who have a shorter fuse, become cross more readily – we’re having to painstakingly re-establish routines and expectations that have been lost over the last weeks and months.”

***

Ofsted reports children are struggling mentally as a result of the pandemic’s disruption, with increases in cases of self-harm and eating disorders.

Figures from NHS Digital show a sharp rise in people contacting children and young people’s mental health services during the first lockdown. Some 281,199 were in contact at the end of April – up from 230,772 at the same point in 2019.

 

A separate survey by NHS Digital found one in six children were experiencing a probable mental health disorder in July. These children were less likely to receive regular support from their school or college during the pandemic (62.6 per cent) compared to others (76.4 per cent), and were more likely to live in a household that had fallen behind with payments (16.3 per cent) during lockdown than others (6.4 per cent).

Paediatricians are concerned about delays in children seeing a doctor when they feel physically or mentally ill. Over the summer, they saw a late presentation of symptoms most commonly in diabetes, self-harm, sepsis, mental health problems and malignancy.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) warns that “health professionals are concerned that such delays could happen again this winter”, as some paediatricians are seeing far fewer children than they would have expected. “Anecdotally, some paediatricians say that their departments are ‘eerily quiet’ but others have said that they’re pretty busy,” says an RCPCH spokesperson. “We just don’t know yet but it’s certainly a concern.”

There has also been a drop in parents taking their children for routine vaccinations since the lockdown in March. According to data from 38 per cent of GP practices, 3.8 per cent fewer hexavalent vaccines and 2.8 per cent fewer MMR vaccines have been given compared with the same time last year.

This reflects a general trend in patients putting off visits to the GP or hospital during the pandemic, for fear of contracting coronavirus or putting pressure on the NHS.

***

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the rise in harm to babies revealed by Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman last week. Every week, local authorities notified Ofsted about babies that have died or been seriously harmed through abuse and neglect.

Between April and October, more than 300 serious incident notifications were made, 40 per cent of which regarded babies – more than a fifth more than in the same period last year. More than half of these cases – 64 children – suffered non-accidental injuries, with eight dying as a result.

Spielman called this a “hidden danger”. As well as babies being intentionally harmed, she also reported a high number of “unexpected infant deaths”, some of which were preventable, such as “babies not being put down to sleep safely, sharing a bed or sofa with a parent who has been drinking, for example.”

“Unfortunately these issues rarely occur in isolation,” says Tom McBride, the director of evidence at the Early Intervention Foundation. “For example, poverty not only increases the pressure on families but exacerbates the risk of other issues such as substance misuse and parental conflict, which are extremely damaging for children and make abuse and neglect more likely.”

Indeed, children are increasingly present at foodbanks. With a 47 per cent rise in foodbank use during the crisis, an average of 2,600 food parcels have been provided for children every day in the first six months of the pandemic, according to the Trussell Trust foodbank network.

“We’ve had a lot of people in who have never used foodbanks before,” says Debbie Shelley, who manages a foodbank in Bootle, Merseyside. “There are a lot of families.”

Over the summer holiday, her foodbank gave out 200 bags of food a day to replace school meals, and 915 overall during the five-day October half-term.

She predicts the situation will “get worse” in the coming months for families struggling to make ends meet over Christmas.

***

Another social worker, Emma*, who works for a West Midlands local authority, is particularly concerned about children with disabilities. Some of her cases have not returned to school, which they rely on for everything, from routine to toys.

“All these kids in dysfunctional families – they were going to school, maybe dad was usually out because he was having a drink and going to the pub and coming back late at night. But then, now, everybody’s in this house together, with all these added pressures,” she says. “And they’re not having the support they would’ve had previously through all the different meetings we had.”

For children with autism or those who are “oppositionally defiant”, the stress is heightened, says Emma. Being cooped up at home can make behaviour more challenging, and she has struggled to access families who do not want to risk distressing their child further with a visit from the authorities.

“We know they’re there, but we’re struggling to even get to them – they’re not in school, which is normally a safeguard. What is going on? Are we seeing the full picture?” she asks. “These children become invisible to us.”

*Names have been changed on request of anonymity

[See also: Anoosh and Michael’s investigation into the rise of domestic abuse during lockdown]

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Michael Goodier is a data journalist at New Statesman Media Group