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The truth's out

COVID-19 has seen upward trends in a number of troubling areas. Speculation, for instance.

As we sought answers to the incomprehensible, we turned first to the experts, but soon realised that they were whistling in the same wind as the rest of us, albeit with a better vocabulary. Then we turned to commentators, before we realised that they had been chatting to the experts. And then we turned to anyone prepared to offer an opinion. Enough said.

Things are starting to shift, though. We're now building up a body of evidence to back up the supposition. The impact of the lockdown on mental health, the economy, long term health conditions, education, civil society - indeed, a whole range of important indicators - is becoming at once more clear and more murky.

Yesterday was a big day. Children and young people have always been a driving force for me, and two things happened that brought home the reality of our current circumstances for that sometimes under-represented group. The statistics continue to highlight that the coronavirus has hit younger people less than older but being spared the direct affects doesn't mean that the impact hasn't been great. And so it has been proved.

Holding on

The Children's Society has always been a steadfast advocate for the most vulnerable young people. Their Good Childhood Report is a must-read every September, but yesterday, in response to COVID-19, they revealed some in-year findings from qualitative research.

Life on Hold highlights what coronavirus has meant for young people's well-being:

  • Social distancing has exacerbated feelings of isolation and dislocation

  • Loss of income within families is disproportionately affecting children who are already at risk and disadvantaged

  • School closures have raised fears about achieving the grades necessary to proceed

  • The future is even less certain than it was, although this has also made respondents more appreciative and grateful for the things they do have around them.

As Mark Russell, their Chief Executive, writes in his foreword:

Life was already difficult for too many children and Coronavirus has made their lives even harder

Facing up

The second thing that happened yesterday was Hidden Harm: Safeguarding Children during COVID-19, which was hosted by Partners in Paediatrics.

I’m proud to be PiP’s chair, safe in the knowledge that our mission to improve the quality of services for children and young people has never been more important, as a network organisation, than it has been during the lockdown.

Yesterday’s seminar brought together five experts and over 200 zoom attendees. The focus was on lessons from Birmingham as the youngest major city in Europe, with under 25s accounting for nearly 40% of its population, but with an eye on relevant national statistics.

Our speakers shared with us their practical experiences and researched findings. The detailed data and associated insight will have to remain in a box until peer review has taken place, but the headlines are stark and cannot be ignored:

  • The number of emergency department attendances has decreased, but there has been a dramatic increase in abusive head trauma and the proportion of burns injuries

  • Referrals to children’s social care from health services have risen significantly, with a devastating increase in suspected physical abuse

  • The number of falls from height is higher than normal

  • Children from a BAME background have been disproportionately affected

  • The Independent Domestic Violence Advocate is busier than normal

  • School has a major protective effect, but voluntary attendance reduces those benefits.

And these findings align with the national picture:

  • Calls to domestic violence helplines have increased by 50% (Kooth)

  • The child suicide rate has risen (National Child Mortality Data)

  • Food poverty has risen, as measured by the number of children admitted with malnutrition (Food Foundation).

Waving in

The language of the moment is graphic. Yesterday’s contributors predicted a ‘tsunami’ of safeguarding issues following each ‘wave’ of the coronavirus.

Children and young people tend to bounce back; they are natural optimists. But we have a duty to give them a boost. Professional support must be targeted on those who need universal credit. The index of deprivation must drive planning and provision. The basics of food and shelter must be seen as rights not privileges.

In short, we must all act to deliver the promise made at the Prime Minister’s Hidden Harms Summit:

The voice of the child must permeate, inform, and inspire our collective endeavours

I commit to that future, both personally and professionally. Will you?

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