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Why children and young people must be at the heart of Covid-19 recovery

Young people must be at the heart of how we build back better after the Covid-19 pandemic, writes Dame Clare Moriartry

I have no doubt that for millions, Monday’s news of a third national Covid-19 lockdown in England was an incredible blow. Ten months on from the first lockdown, our nation is now back to staying at home, with businesses, hospitality and schools closing their doors again.

While we have all been affected in our own ways, young people have experienced compounding effects from the pandemic, with disruption to their education and missing out on social interactions causing distress and anxiety.

This week’s news that the pandemic has once again interrupted the nation’s schooling puts the impact on our youngest into sharp focus. We know how critical education is for development, not only in terms of attainment and learning, but for developing problem solving skills, emotional connections and feeling valued and empowered.

Disruptions to education will also undoubtedly have long-term impacts on health with evidence showing that those with higher levels of education are expected to live four years longer than those with the lowest.

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Last month, the UCL Institute for Health Equity published a landmark report, “Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review, authored by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. As the first major output of the Health Foundation’s Covid-19 impact inquiry, which I am honoured to be chairing this year, this new report investigates how the pandemic has affected health inequalities in the UK.

The report’s findings make deeply troubling reading, particularly for young people when it comes to education. The report shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have been more harmed by school closures in the first lockdown than children from wealthier backgrounds, with less learning time and reduced access to online educational resources likely to widen inequalities. As a result, teachers in deprived schools were more likely to report that their pupils were further behind compared to where they would usually be, with 44 per cent of pupils in need of intensive catch-up support.  With schools now closed again, these challenges will persist and deepen inequalities even further.

The report also found that school funding continued to benefit schools in the least disadvantaged areas the most, further widening educational outcomes. As the Government and local authorities seek to support children learning from home in the coming months, this imbalance must be corrected.

The pandemic has also shown us that University students have been severely impacted as well. While more accustomed to remote learning, students have struggled with a lack of support, social isolation, and declining mental health.

And it’s not just education, with the Build Back Fairer report revealing that younger generations have been impacted when it comes to employment too.

Unemployment has risen more rapidly among young people than other age groups during the pandemic, potentially leading to huge implications for their health due to lower earnings and impact on their mental health such as issues of depression. Due to the nature of their work – for example, being more likely to be working in the hardest hit sectors of hospitality and retail – 1 in 3 people aged 18 to 24 have been furloughed or let go from their jobs, twice the rate of working-age adults overall.

Jobs for people in this age group are an important first rung of the working ladder, building skills and confidence. Concern is building that a long period of unemployment for this generation may cause scars in the rest of their working lives.

Looking ahead, the road to recovery from the pandemic will not be easy, and the challenge of trying to protect the public from the virus itself, whilst ensuring that our nation’s young people are not disadvantaged, is incredibly complex. The Covid-19 impact inquiry seeks to understand and learn these lessons, looking beyond the direct impact of the virus itself to examine the impact of measures to control the virus, such as lockdowns, on health and health inequalities across the UK.

Mitigating the damage caused by the pandemic to education, employment and income must be at the heart of the government’s plans for recovery and levelling up. For young people, this means offering practical solutions to help find employment and training to access better jobs. All children working remotely need to be properly supported and that those living in the most deprived areas are given additional support.

It is essential that the issues of education, employment and effects on mental health are tackled head on, so that we do not create a second health crisis for our young people later in life if they are not given the support they need now. As we continue the battle against COVID-19, we would do well to remember that young people are our nation’s future, and their health is one of our greatest assets.

By Dame Clare Moriarty, former civil servant and Chair of the Health Foundation’s new COVID-19 impact inquiry