Covid-19 Inquiry: Children deserve a proper explanation for what went on during the pandemic
When some of the big names from Downing Street’s coronavirus response turned up to the Covid-19 Inquiry last month, the hearing descended into a foul-mouthed political circus.
WhatsApps sent by former chief advisor to Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, revealed expletive laden language to describe a female colleague and his frustration about decision-making, or lack of. We learnt very little of genuine use about the UK government’s response. The media naturally went for the excitement of a cheeky starred-out headline, but as another key week in the Inquiry gets underway and high-level key players like Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Dominic Raab make their appearance, it’s time for those giving evidence and those asking the questions not to get side-tracked.
Just one example of how bombast blurs important information the public need to hear was the evidence of then Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen McNamara. Just a day after Cummings’ appearance she told the Inquiry women became invisible overnight and “the exclusion of a female perspective led to significant negative consequences, including the lack of thought given to childcare in the context of school closures.” This is crucial information but swearing and gossip continued to take centre stage.
As core participants in the Covid Inquiry, we’re desperate to hear from those at the very top of the UK Government about the decision-making behind the closure of schools and nurseries, as well as rules that meant some children didn’t see a friend their age for 70 days. We believe children were disproportionately disadvantaged throughout the pandemic as outlined in our report What About The Children? released in September. Surprisingly Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is not being called to give evidence in this particular section of the Inquiry. Despite having responsibility for education, we wonder why a supposed voice for children was perhaps not more instrumental in the response? Therefore Michael Gove, who was then the most senior Cabinet Office minister and made decisions around schools at the time, is a key witness for us.
Former Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has already told the Inquiry that she felt there was nobody at the Cabinet table who was taking the best interests of children into account when decisions were made during the pandemic. We’d like to know if Michael Gove agrees with this or if he can point to evidence that backs up that children’s rights were systematically considered.
We’d like to know if closing schools suddenly on January 5 2021 was a mistake. In his witness statement, Gavin Williamson said that in future, schools should avoid being closed at all costs. We feel that such sudden changes in policy left teachers with very little time to prepare child-friendly messaging about another upheaval in their education, or adequately prepare students for another round of remote learning.
Also, if Gove saw nothing wrong or disproportionate in re-opening pubs, restaurants, non-essential retail shops, hairdressers, and theme parks in the summer of 2020 before opening schools?
And finally, if he agrees with Helen MacNamara about the lack of women in the room lead to a lack of thought around school closures and childcare.
For Children’s Rights Organisations Tuesday (28th November) is one of the most important days of evidence in the entire Inquiry. Let’s hope children and their families get straight forward responses, clear justifications and reasoning without political smoke and mirrors, without distracting language and tedious WhatsApps that overshadow what we suspect was going on - that children were at the back of the queue when it came to decision making and their rights were frequently overlooked.
Dan Paskins is Director of UK Impact at Save the Children UK on behalf of the Children’s Rights Organisations, which are core participants of the Covid-19 Inquiry. They are Save the Children UK, Just for Kids Law and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE).
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