Unprecedented letter from paediatricians says further delay will put life chances at risk
More than 1,500 of the UK’s leading paediatricians and child health specialists have told Boris Johnson he needs to urgently publish the government’s plans for children to return to school, in an unprecedented warning that their absence “risks scarring the life chances of a generation of young people”.
The letter circulated by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) – the first time it has asked its members to sign a joint message to the prime minister – quickly attracted hundreds of signatures in support of its blunt message: “Left unchecked, Covid-19 will exacerbate existing problems and deepen structural social and health inequalities.”
Dr Liz Marder, a consultant community paediatrician in Nottingham who signed the letter within two minutes of it being sent out, said: “Very few children have been directly affected by Covid-19. But, indirectly, many children and young people have suffered enormously from the impact that the pandemic has had on their daily lives.
“It is our most vulnerable children, such as those from disadvantaged families or those with additional needs, who may suffer most. Getting children safely back into education as soon as we can has to be a priority if we are to avoid further damage to the health, wellbeing and life chances of so many of our young people.”
Russell Viner, the RCPCH’s president, said the response showed the concerns paediatricians had for the mental and physical health of children who will miss months of education and the broader benefits schools bring.
“Schools are vital to the wellbeing of children and young people, providing a range of services from vaccinations to mental health support,” said Viner.
“Schools are also where at-risk children are looked out for and supported. Right now, we don’t know how some of the most vulnerable children in our society are faring because they are outside of the safety net that school provides.”
The letter notes that the governments of Scotland and Wales have published plans for children returning to school at the end of the summer.
“We call on the UK government and the Northern Ireland executive to urgently publish clear plans for getting children back to school; and for all UK governments to deliver recovery plans for children and young people. Without such action, the effects of Covid-19 will linger far beyond the pandemic itself and will limit the life chances of children and young people for years to come,” the RCPCH letter states.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Gullis, a Conservative MP who sits on the education select committee, sharply criticised the NASUWT and the National Education Union teaching unions for their role in the wider reopening of schools in England.
As the committee questioned union leaders at a hearing on Wednesday, Gullis accused the unions of using health and safety arguments to obstruct the reopening of schools, rather than cooperating with school leaders and local authorities.
“I am absolutely outraged at the sheer damage that unions have done to the teaching profession and there are a lot of questions for unions to answer on this regard,” said Gullis, a former teacher and NASUWT union member.
“Teachers have worked incredibly hard and they have been unbelievable but the unions have acted, I am sorry, in a way that is not in the interests of working with people,” he said.
Patrick Roach, the NASUWT’s general secretary, responded: “For the record, the NASUWT has not been engaged in any campaign to keep schools closed. What we’ve been engaged in is work with government, with local authorities, with individual employers and multi-academy trusts, to ensure the safe return of children to learning as quickly as it is possible to do.”
But Gullis continued: “A campaign has been run, whether you like it or not, to brief fear into parents about the idea of sending their kids back to school. While I appreciate that the NASUWT has not done a specific campaign, it has come across to parents that schools are death traps.”