“Our children have suffered too much from us closing down their lives, to protect the middle age and the vulnerable,” Russell Viner, a professor in adolescent health at University College London, told The Independent. “I don’t think during this pandemic we have necessarily got the balance right.”
Schools in Britain were shut throughout the first lockdown of the pandemic, before reopening in June and September. During the Alpha wave, which ran from winter 2020 to spring 2021, there were mass closures across the four nations and a move to remote learning; however, there was no UK-wide closure of classrooms.
Prof Viner, who is also a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said there was now clear evidence pandemic-related school closures have harmed children. This includes loss of learning, reduced social interaction, isolation, decreased physical activity, increased mental health problems, and the potential for at-home abuse.
The National Mental Health of Children and Young People study showed that mental health disorders in English children and young people increased from one in nine to one in six during the pandemic. Childhood obesity in England also increased by 4.5 per cent from 2019 to 2021. And medical referrals for children protection fell by up to 39 per cent.
Although school closures reduce the number of contacts children have, and may decrease transmission, a study of 12 million adults in the UK found no difference in the risk of death from Covid-19 in households with or without children.
Prof Viner acknowledged “there’s a lot of complexity” around keeping young people safe from Covid-19 and minimising risk, but warned against the inadvertent dangers of “wrapping children in cotton wool to protect them”.
“This dilemma about how do we protect children is one that’s been there for paediatricians and parents for generations,” he said. “Covid is a new thing, but it brings out the same set of issues.
“If we drive all risk out of our children’s lives, we actually potentially harm them. At the beginning of Covid, when we were looking at reopening schools safely, I would often say ‘There’s no such thing as safe’. Now, every time you open your front door and walk out, you are starting to become [more] unsafe in a sense there is risk.
“We choose to say that we accept the risks that are inherent in life, we try and minimise them, but realise there is some risk there. If we wrap our children in cotton wool to try to protect them, we end up smothering them.”
This doesn’t mean that schools should not be made safer, Prof Viner said, pointing to how more should have been done to improve ventilation facilities in classrooms to help mitigate against the spread of Covid-19 and avoid disruption.
“In retrospect, of all the billions of pounds that have been spent on Covid, if we’d really embarked on a major investment programme in improving ventilation in schools in June 2020, when we reopened our primary schools, we would now be in a very different place,” he said.
Some 350,000 CO2 monitors have been sent out to schools by the government to assess airflow. Of the nine in 10 schools that received the monitors, more than a third found classrooms with consistently poor levels of ventilation, according to a recent union survey.
Prof Viner said the threat of new Covid variants made it impossible to rule out the need for further school closures, but warned that everything should be done to keep classrooms open in any future lockdown.
“We need to absolutely prioritise keeping schools open if we can because of the harms that have occurred to our children during this pandemic for very little benefit,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of benefit from the way we have fought this pandemic. There’s been a lot of benefit for the elderly. It’s been a lot of benefit for the middle-aged, like me. But there’s been almost no benefit for children from the way we have fought this pandemic.”
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University London, said not enough consideration was being given to keeping clinically vulnerable children safe, and that the lack of mitigation measures in schools means they are at greater risk from Covid compared to their classmates.
“The open versus closed dichotomy is a false one,” she said. “Every single parent wants schools open – but safely. The choice can’t be between education and health. We should have access to both.
“Clinically vulnerable children and parents have been particularly hung out to dry, with parents being prosecuted for the crime of trying to keep children safe.”
She also said the slowness of the UK’s vaccine rollout among under-18s and the failure to better protect children in school was resulting in the continued transmission of the virus among the young and leading to huge classroom absences.
The latest data show that 310,000 children were out of school due to Covid on 6 January. “Mass disruption will continue unless we do something to contain transmission,” Dr Gurdasani said.