As we emerge from the first peak of the pandemic, we can see that the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people has been quite different to that of the adult population.
While children have been largely spared from the clinical effects of COVID-19, almost every child in the country has experienced ‘collateral damage’.
Millions have faced an unprecedented interruption in their education, and the burden of this has weighed most heavily on disadvantaged families and communities.
Most children, mainly through being out of school, have also faced a prolonged period of physical isolation, during which they have been unable to spend time with friends, peers, and other family members. This has a direct impact on their mental health and wellbeing. It has been an especially difficult time for families who are shielding.
Children’s health services have also been disrupted with less capacity to protect children and young people. We worked closely with NHS services around the UK to mitigate these effects and valued the extraordinary collective effort right across the health service. Yet we remain gravely concerned for the wellbeing of the many children we have not been able to see in our clinics and other settings during this period. This includes vulnerable children who are already connected with the child protection system but also those who are falling through the cracks. We are particularly concerned that the economic impacts of the pandemic will produce a new generation of vulnerable children that we are yet to identify.
This unique set of impacts means children and young people require a distinctive set of responses to the challenges that will arise over winter and beyond. We are concerned that governments were slow to recognise the impact on children, and that lessons should be learned to prevent further harms.
As paediatricians and child health workers, we are calling for a UK-wide, cross-party rapid review on the impact of the pandemic on the health and wellbeing of children and young people, followed by cross-government action guided by a national strategy. The need for this is urgent – not just because we have far more evidence, data and knowledge than in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, but because we are now facing into a period when annual winter pressures will make the delivery of routine services even more challenging.
As we consider the potential for a second wave of the pandemic over winter, it is vital that children and young people are prioritised as mitigation efforts are implemented. Schools must remain open where possible, with investment and research into mitigation efforts and a clear national plan to preserve learning and wellbeing.
We rightly asked a great deal of our children and young people in the first pandemic wave in order to protect the adult population. Children and young people are nearly 25% of our population but 100% of our future. We must ensure that in the event of the second wave, their needs and requirements are a key part of the national response.