Children are 'ignored' by Covid Inquiry, coalition of experts warn

Fears children are being ‘silenced’ by Covid Inquiry: Charities slam delay in assessing pandemic’s impact on kids

  • More than 40 charities and experts have signed a letter addressed to the Inquiry
  • The inquiry has so far spent £40 million after hearing just 23 days of evidence 
  • READ MORE: Bodies of Covid victims were ‘double bagged like toxic waste’ 

The Covid Inquiry was today accused of silencing children, whose lives were ‘turned upside down’ by the pandemic. 

More than 40 charities and experts criticised the ‘unacceptable’ delay in assessing how the Government’s handling of the crisis affected kids. The probe, which began two months ago, has not yet got that far. 

In a letter penned to the chair of the inquiry, the coalition demanded that the views of the country’s young are not ‘ignored’.

Dozens of studies have highlighted how the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns hindered children’s development.

Youngsters from all economic backgrounds have suffered setbacks to their emotional and social development, researchers have found.  

The letter, addressed to Baroness Heather Hallett, chair of the probe, also demands an explanation for ‘unacceptable delays’ in examining the pandemic’s impact on young people

In the first week of the Inquiry, its chief lawyer Hugo Keith KC, presented the Inquiry with an extraordinarily complicated flow chart detailing the government’s chain of command in helping to protect Brits from future pandemics. The diagram, created by the Inquiry to reflect structures in 2019, links together more than 100 organisations involved in preparing the country for any future infectious threats

Signatories of the letter, seen by The Daily Telegraph, include the NSPCC, Save the Children UK and the National Children’s Bureau.

It urged the Inquiry, which has already spent £40million, to immediately involve children to understand the ‘damage, socially, mentally and academically’ that the pandemic caused. 

‘We are writing to express our increasing and ongoing concern about the absence of a clear and public strategy and approach for listening to children and young people, especially those who experience inequalities or discrimination,’ it reportedly said.

The probe has invited the public to submit statements about their experience of the pandemic for its ‘listening exercise’, Every Story Matters. 

However, the website where people are able to submit their evidence does not allow under-18s to contribute.  

Read more: The Covid Inquiry has already cost the taxpayer £40 million after just 23 days of evidence, figures reveal

‘Children are nearly a quarter of the population,’ the letter said. ‘This is not a nationwide listening exercise without them.’

Dan Paskins, director of UK impact at Save the Children, told The Telegraph: ‘Children are being silenced by this inquiry.

‘They must not be ignored. Despite repeated promises from chair, Baroness Heather Hallett, that she would urgently ensure children’s memories are captured and that the issue matters to her, no measures are in place to make this happen.

‘Children are not an afterthought or an inconvenience in this inquiry process. Their lives were turned upside down by government decisions and any barriers in the way of them having their say need to be removed immediately.’

Meanwhile, Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said it was ‘crucial’ the Inquiry gives young people a voice to avoid them being ‘defined by the pandemic’. 

He added: ‘Children’s needs often went under the radar during the pandemic but we heard first-hand through Childline and the NSPCC Helpline about its devastating impact on many young people, particularly those subjected to abuse and neglect,’ he said.

‘Many of the children who suffered the most did so because they were hidden from those who could help them.

‘It’s crucial the Covid Inquiry finally gives young people a voice so we can fully understand the support and services required to avoid a generation of children being defined by the pandemic.’

Unprecedented stay-at-home orders, including the closure of schools, were among the key policies introduced at the start of the pandemic.

Ministers had little choice but to shelter society once the virus reached the UK, after being warned that hundreds of thousands could die without immediate action.

Vaccines — considered the only safe route out of the pandemic — were still months away from being deployed.

Giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry in June, former chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies said the full impact of lockdowns had failed to be considered . While she acknowledged she agreed with lockdown in principal, the impact had ‘damaged a generation’, she claimed 

Studies have shown students’ academic performance suffered, while the country also entered a recession due to the economic impact of the crisis. 

A major study published earlier this month found nearly half of parents said their children’s social and emotional skills got worse during the pandemic. 

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the University College London Institute of Education, found children appeared more worried and scared, lost confidence more easily, and were more prone to tantrums after lockdowns.

A damning report from parent campaigners last month also revealed ministers were warned in November 2020 that more children would die from suicide than from contracting Covid if they shut schools.

The joint briefing paper by the Department for Education and the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours also cited a rise in self-harm among young people during lockdown.

Read more:  Government was aware a ‘moderate’ pandemic would cause major infrastructure problems years before Covid struck, inquiry hears

Recent months have already seen huge criticism of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, including the country’s lack of a thorough plan for dealing with such an event. 

The first module of the Inquiry concluded in July after six weeks of witness evidence, but the probe as a whole is not expected to end until 2026.

Giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry in June, former chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies said the full impact of lockdowns had failed to be considered. 

While she acknowledged she agreed with lockdown in principal, the impact had ‘damaged a generation’, she claimed. 

Addressing the Inquiry, she said: ‘It’s clear that no one thought about lockdown. I still think we should have locked down, although a week earlier.

‘But during that we should have thought do we need to further? The damage I now see to children and students from Covid and the educational impact tells me that education has a terrific amount of work to do…

‘I know in pre-schools they haven’t learned how to socialise and play properly, they haven’t learned how to read at school. We must have plans for them.’

The Inquiry has taken a two-month break before it will hear evidence in the autumn on its second module, on political and government decision-making. 

According to the Covid inquiry’s terms of reference, it will ‘listen to and consider carefully’ the experiences of bereaved families and others affected by the pandemic.

A spokesman for the inquiry said: ‘The inquiry is being delivered through modules. The first modules will build a picture of the pandemic – looking at how prepared the UK was for a pandemic and why certain decisions were made.

‘The inquiry is structured in this way to ensure each issue is investigated with sufficient depth whilst allowing the inquiry to make progress.

‘Inquiry chairman Baroness Hallett is committed to investigating the impacts on children and young people – including health, well-being and social care – and will do so as soon as possible.

‘It is one of a number of topics which the inquiry must investigate that are set out in our terms of reference.’

A separate Scottish Covid Inquiry is looking at the pandemic response in devolved areas in Scotland.

Mr Drakeford has said he and the Welsh government are fully committed to the inquiry, though they maintain that there is no need for Wales to hold its own inquiry.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? Who else will be involved? And how long will it take? EVERYTHING you need to know about the Covid inquiry

Why was the inquiry set up?

There has been much criticism of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, including the fact the country seemed to lack a thorough plan for dealing with such a major event.

Other criticisms levelled at the Government include allowing elderly people to be discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested, locking down too late in March 2020 and the failures of the multi-billion NHS test and trace.

Families of those who lost their loved ones to Covid campaigned for an independent inquiry into what happened.

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was right that lessons are learned, announcing in May 2021 that an inquiry would be held.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? If so, when?

It’s not clear exactly when, or if, the former Prime Minister will be quizzed. No full list of witnesses for each module has been published yet.

But given he was in charge of the Government for almost the entirety of the pandemic, his insights will prove central to understanding several aspects of the nation’s response.

If called forward as a witness, he would be hauled in front of the committee to give evidence.

What topics will the inquiry cover?

There are currently six broad topics, called modules, that will be considered by the inquiry.

Module 1 has already examined the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic.

Module 2 will, in the autumn, examine decisions taken by Mr Johnson and his then team of ministers, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers, and relevant committees.

The decisions taken by those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also be examined.

Module 3 will investigate the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers and staff.

This will include the controversial use of Do Not Attempt Resuscitation notices during the pandemic.

Module 4 meanwhile will assess Covid vaccines and therapeutics. 

It will consider and make recommendations on a range of issues relating to the development of Covid vaccines and the implementation of the vaccine rollout programme in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Modules 5 and 6 will open later this year, investigating government procurement and the care sector. 

Who is in charge of the inquiry?

Baroness Heather Hallett is in the charge of the wide-reaching inquiry. And she’s no stranger to taking charge of high profile investigations.

The 72-year-old ex-Court of Appeal judge was entrusted by Mr Johnson with chairing the long-awaited public probe into the coronavirus crisis.

Her handling of the inquiry will be subject to ferocious scrutiny.

Until Baroness Hallett was asked to stand aside, she was acting as the coroner in the inquest of Dawn Sturgess, the 44-year-old British woman who died in July 2018 after coming into contact with the nerve agent Novichok.

She previously acted as the coroner for the inquests into the deaths of the 52 victims of the July 7, 2005 London bombings.

She also chaired the Iraq Fatalities Investigations, as well as the 2014 Hallett Review of the administrative scheme to deal with ‘on the runs’ in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Hallett, a married mother-of-two, was nominated for a life peerage in 2019 as part of Theresa May’s resignation honours.

How long will it take?

When he launched the terms of the inquiry in May 2021, Mr Johnson said he hoped it could be completed in a ‘reasonable timescale’.

But, realistically, it could take years.

It has no formal deadline but is due to hold hearings across the UK until at least 2025. 

Interim reports are scheduled to be published before public hearings conclude by summer 2026.

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war began in 2009 but the final, damning document wasn’t released until 2016.

Meanwhile, the Bloody Sunday inquiry took about a decade.

Should a similar timescale be repeated for the Covid inquiry, it would take the sting out of any criticism of any Tory Government failings.

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