The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) has monitored how Government has helped children and young people recover from the impact of the Covid – 19 Pandemic. After presenting her findings to the Covid Recovery Taskforce, Koulla Yiasouma, NI Commissioner for Children and Young People, said: “There is little evidence to suggest the Executive and its agencies have prioritised the needs of children and young people throughout the course of the Pandemic and as we continue to recover from it.”
NICCY’s 2021 report ‘A New and Better Normal’ assessed the impact of government’s response to the pandemic on the lives of children and young people and made recommendations to make sure Government acted to help them recover from it. It found no child was untouched by the Pandemic and that vulnerable children were made much more vulnerable during it and therefore needed the most intervention to recover from its impact. The experiences of almost 4500 children and young people were captured. (See statistics in Notes to Editors)
Koulla continued: “Children and families in need became more vulnerable when vital services were closed to them.
“Indeed, Government statistics[i] show us there are more children on the Child Protection Register, children in care and more children being referred to child in need services than there were before the Pandemic.”
“I have not been presented with any evidence to suggest that things are better for these children and young people.
“In fact, we know that rather than recognising the huge impact Covid has had on young people, the additional £20 per week lifeline which was crucial for families on low incomes has been removed. This has plunged many into financial hardship and is being exacerbated further by the current cost of living crisis.
“Waiting times for health care worsened during the pandemic and our review of child health waiting lists last year highlighted a lack of focus and investment in paediatric services. It is also concerning that a dedicated COVID-19 recovery plan for paediatric services is still in draft.
The Commissioner acknowledged that work has been on-going, particularly across the education sector which by its nature has had to mainstream Covid recovery. She remains concerned however, that government has been unable to prove the impact of the actions taken.
“There are a number of areas where insufficient work has been done. In particular ‘play and leisure’ (especially outside of school setting), and ‘information and participation’ which are key areas of children’s lives, are not being given targeted attention in the ‘Consolidated Covid 19 Recovery Plan’ (CCRP). There is insufficient action evident in the departmental updates to NICCY on these areas”, said the Commissioner.
NICCY’s monitoring report found a lack of available data on children during the Pandemic, this included rates of covid infection / long covid and school absenteeism. The actions taken during the recovery phase of the pandemic also lack detail, particularly for those most vulnerable to its impact i.e. children with a disability, care experienced, those with mental health problems or living in poverty.
Koulla concluded, “I am concerned that the specific Covid-19 Vulnerable Children and Young People’s Plan was subsumed into other longer-term work of departments. This means we can no longer clearly see specific actions taken by Government to support children and young people impacted by the Pandemic. It is also concerning that Government state that ‘budgetary constraints may impact on the scale of delivery of the COVID-19 Recovery work plan in the year ahead’. A funding plan must be set against actions – to include those which will be prioritised for funding.
“I do not underestimate the scale of the challenges of Covid recovery, which have been heightened by pre-existing pressures and a fast-emerging cost-of-living crisis. It is deeply concerning that we do not have an Executive in place to lead the Covid recovery, make timely strategic decisions and release vital funding.
“The ability of the system to respond to the needs of children and young people now and in any future public emergency and recovery needs to be strengthened. It is our firm view this can be done best by embedding children’s rights in legislation, policy and practice.
NICCY will continue to monitor Government actions in this area and provide advice to support progress, engaging further with the Taskforce directly.