Covid-19 having 'devastating effect' on children

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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image captionA letter signed by 50 experts says services for children and families in the UK face unprecedented demand

Northern Ireland's mental health champion is among child health experts warning of the "devastating effect" of the coronavirus pandemic on children.

Professor Siobhan O'Neill was among more than 50 signatories to a letter calling children's welfare "a national emergency".

It was published in the Observer newspaper on Sunday.

Professor O'Neill was appointed Northern Ireland's interim mental health champion in June 2020.

She is also professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University (UU).

The letter calls for the establishment of an independent UK-wide commission "to inform a cross-government strategy to steer children and young people clear from the lingering effects of Covid-19".

"The pandemic is having a devastating effect on the childhoods of children and young people across the country," it said.

"Growing numbers of hard-pressed families are being swept into poverty, with more than four million children living in poverty even before Covid wrecked the economy."

'Yawning education gap'

The letter also said the fact that many children were not in school due to lockdowns had created many additional problems.

Some headteachers have previously told BBC News NI of their concerns about the effects of Covid-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of children, an issue this letter has also addressed.

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image captionA letter warns about the "yawning education gap" children are facing

"The closure of schools has widened the yawning education gap," it said.

"The spiralling numbers of young people suffering mental illness and psychological distress look certain to increase with every day that lockdown keeps them isolated and uncertain about their futures."

'A national emergency'

The experts said that services for children and families in the UK were facing unprecedented demand but had faced funding cuts.

"Children's welfare has become a national emergency," their letter said.

"A strategy to protect children from the worst effects of the pandemic should build on the principles for recovery set out by leading children's charities and must involve children, young people and parents in creating a vision for their futures.

"At present, we have piecemeal solutions and stopgap measures.

"The next generation deserves better."

A recent major study suggested that anxiety and depression was 25% more common in children and young people in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of the UK.

Some research for that study was carried out prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

As well as Professor O'Neill, signatories to the letter to the Observer included the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the National Children's Bureau and some of the UK's other leading child health academics.

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