'Lifetime consequences' warning over vulnerable Norfolk children affected by lockdown
Vulnerable children are at risk of being left “forgotten”, “vulnerable” and “isolated” during the coronavirus lockdown, councillors and a former MP say.
The warning comes after the government’s U-turn on extending the free school meals scheme over the summer, following the successful campaign by Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford – which will see almost 14,000 pupils in the county benefit from the £15 weekly vouchers.
And it follows warnings that Norfolk’s most deprived areas are set to shift in the wake of the pandemic as those who “just about manage” slip into poverty.
The former North Norfolk MP Sir Norman Lamb said “fallout from the Covid-19 crisis” risked “lifetime consequences” for vulnerable children, as domestic violence and abusive parenting went unnoticed during the lockdown.
“Schools are often the place where these things get spotted,” he said. “But children aren’t in schools and it’s happening behind closed doors.
“There may be a child in a home where there are abusive parents. Vulnerable children have had a very different experience. There’s a fear that all of these things will emerge [as lockdown ends] and we see the damage that’s been done.”
Sir Norman, who recently attended a youth mental health summit arranged by the Norfolk Community Foundation, alongside chief constable Simon Bailey, said police referrals for child abuse had gone down over the last few months.
“It will have lifetime consequences,” he said. “I want us in Norfolk to do everything we can to try to minimise the impact that this will have on our children.
“The longer this goes on for the greater the impact will be.”
And he urged the government and the county council to “explore how children can return to schools safely”, saying: “We need to make this a priority for our children’s future.”
Independent county councillor Sandra Squire added: “There’s so much money going into supporting businesses but they need to look at what’s being done for children.
“There’s not much point having businesses if our children are suffering with mental health issues and not getting education.
“It’s more important that they get through this and they seem to be a bit forgotten about. They don’t have enough of a voice.”
And Jackie Westrop, from Swan Youth Project in Downham Market, added: “We expect to see that problems actually increase and we know young people are going to have issues when they go back into schools.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We have always recognised the impact of coronavirus on the most disadvantaged children and their families, and are committed to doing whatever we can to make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind as a result.
“We know the best place for children is in school, which is why primary schools now have the flexibility to invite more children and we are working towards all children returning to school by September.
“We are improving mental health support through videos, webinars and teaching materials created by experts and working with partners to develop a long-term package of support for children to catch up on lost learning, building upon the £100 million of support already made available to help children learn from home.”
And opposition councillors are set to grill the county’s children’s services department over the response to the pandemic at a meeting next week.
Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group, said the scrutiny committee would hold a “robust examination” into the council’s handling of the crisis “starting with children’s services because of the impact on children and families in the county”.