The First Minister addressed Parliament last Tuesday to outline the decisions for Scotland’s move out of lockdown and into what has been termed a ‘modified’ level zero. Of course, this is welcome news for most, but we must make sure that by moving forward with easing restrictions for many aspects of adults’ lives, we do not leave younger people behind living under tougher measures.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, children have sacrificed so much in the name of public health, with schools closing and the move to remote learning and the limits on seeing friends and family. They have waited for older people to be vaccinated first and are now left seeing that restrictions for adults are being reduced first. Their selflessness should not be overlooked.
It is essential that the Covid-19 restrictions to protect public health that will remain as we emerge from lockdown do not affect children more than adults. Measures that infringe children’s human rights must remain in place only if they are necessary and proportionate. Those measures must be time-limited and any lifting of restrictions should not be at their expense.
But a cautious approach is needed as clearly children are not immune to Covid but there is a still a great deal that is unknown about its impacts on them, especially in relation to long Covid.
As life opens up further, I’m particularly concerned about the impact on clinically vulnerable children, some of whom are still unable to access the in-person services they need. We must not have a situation where some children are forced into ‘shielding by default’ as restrictions ease.
And where restrictions on children are justified based on scientific advice, it is essential that we see a clear plan from the Government to reduce the heightened risks and mitigations facing children, particularly on their return to school.
My office has been in ongoing discussion with the Scottish Government about the impact of Covid-19 on children since lockdown began in March 2020. The issues we raised in our Independent Children’s Rights Impact Assessment on the Response to Covid 19 in Scotland last year still remain a concern. Protecting public health is essential, but the impact of Covid protections measures on mental health, education and development are profound, and they disproportionally affect children whose rights were already most at risk, including disabled children, care experienced children and children impacted by poverty.
I outlined my concerns to the Minister for Children and Young People earlier this month in a letter urging more clarity on the necessity and proportionality of the measures that may remain for children and young people.
Many children ended their summer term not at school with friends but in self-isolation at home. Infection control measures are taking a heavy toll on children and young people. The long-term impact of mass self-isolation for children and young people is not yet well understood and it may be making existing disadvantages faced by some children much worse.
For now, it is clear these periods place significant restrictions on children’s rights to education, to mental health, to family life and to socialisation.
I have asked that the Scottish Government to consider a more targeted and limited approach to self-isolation in schools, or present clear evidence as to why that is not possible.
Children and young people have shared throughout the pandemic that their mental health has been hugely affected by uncertainty and confusion around decisions – both the reasons for them and the time they will be in place. Decisions must be justified and clearly communicated directly to children and young people and their families in a way they can understand.
With the end of the summer holidays in a matter of weeks, the Government must prioritise children and young people, now and at their return to school so that they know what that might look like.
And as adults do begin to celebrate a return to a more normal life, a life beyond Covid-19, we must be sure not to leave children behind.