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Children will be living in the “long shadow” of the pandemic for the next two decades thanks to the government’s “indifference” to them during lockdown, England’s former children’s commissioner has told the Covid inquiry.

The long-term, “devastating impact” the pandemic had on children’s mental and physical health was compounded by government policies that had left millions of families struggling to survive even prior to February 2020, the inquiry heard.

It was, said Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England until February 2021, a “toxic mix” that should have flagged lockdown as an “obvious” risk to anyone familiar with the wide range of research done into the lives of children in England and Wales prior to the pandemic.

“There was clear concern, pre-pandemic, about child health, rising inequalities in infant mortality, rising inequalities in life expectancy – with life expectancy going backwards, particularly for women in disadvantaged areas,” she said.

“We were seeing more and more children being taken into the care system and rising inequalities in childhood obesity, which is one of the biggest public health challenges we face,” she said. “These all occurred at the same time as rising levels of child poverty across the UK and also cuts to services supporting the most vulnerable children.”

Longfield gave evidence that 2.3 million children – one in six – lived in vulnerable homes prior to the pandemic. During lockdown, she said, this meant these children were “essentially locked up in homes in unsafe environments.”

The government should also have been aware that least 1.8 million children did not have the digital devices necessary for online learning. There was also clear evidence that young people living in the lowest income quintile were twice as likely to already have a mental health diagnosis as those living in the highest income quintile.

“The devastating impact [of lockdown] on certain groups of children was clearly predictable,” Longfield said.

She said she tried repeatedly to talk to the government about the impact their pandemic policies were having on children. “It was very clear that there was no one at the cabinet table who was taking responsibility for children’s best interests,” she said. “I was always told it was it was the role of secretary of state for education but it was very clear he wasn’t part of some of those discussions. There was an empty chair at the table.”

Obesity and mental health problems were already being described before the pandemic as the “modern epidemics of childhood”. In 2019, the government described obesity as one of the biggest health challenges this was country facing.

“Children in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese at age 10 and that gap was widening prior to the pandemic,” Longfield said, also pointing to high levels of diabetes, epilepsy and asthma among poorer, more disadvantaged children.

And yet, she said, during the pandemic, the government appeared “indifferent to children’s experiences”. “I don’t think you need hindsight to know that if you close schools and open restaurants, it’s not going to be in the best interest of children,” she said.

Longfield criticised the government for not making more effort to get vulnerable children back into schools when restrictions on attendance were partially lifted. For a long time, she said, only about 4% of vulnerable children attended school. That later rose to between 10% and 12%.

“There wasn’t the understanding of the complexity for those children to attend,” she said. “It was incoherent. Schools should have been the last to close and the first to open. Instead, you have the opening up of theme parks and restaurants, and eat out to help out instead of school.

“That for me was a terrible mistake, one which played a huge part in children’s very negative experiences of the lockdown,” she added.

Longfield also pointed to the failure of the government to fund help for young people after 2022.

“Kevan Collins’ billion-pound recovery programme was drawn up at the request of the prime minister and would have had a really significant impact on children’s lives, not only to recover from the pandemic, but also to help them bounce back to a better place,” she said. “But it was turned down and replaced with a very narrow, much cheaper option. That was another huge mistake.”

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