13th July 2020

Putting children at the heart of scientific advice on Covid-19

Director of Evidence

Washing hands

In May, concerned about the effects that lockdown and school closures might have on different groups of children, we published a briefing that informed the public debate by weighing up the issues – scientific and otherwise – around children returning back to school. The key point we made was that “Is it safe for children to go back to school?” is not the right question to ask. It’s more meaningful to ask “On balance, given all types of risk to children’s wellbeing and development, is it optimal for them to stay out of school?”

A lot of evidence has emerged on the negative effects of school closures. It has widened the disadvantage gap because poorer children and their more affluent peers. We know that in deprived areas, fewer children have had the resources, capacity and support to learn. There have also been concerns about impacts on children’s mental health. More broadly, as we have argued before, most children have also been denied their right to an education.

Last month, groups of paediatricians and child psychologists added their voice to the call for children to return to school as soon as possible, and echoed many of our points. All political parties now agree on the need to get all children back to school in September, as does the National Education Union.

While school closures are an important aspect of how Covid-19 has disrupted children’s lives, we must not forget it has also led to closures of parks, playgrounds, summer schemes, sports activities, and youth clubs. This still leaves many children ‘hidden’ from view and vulnerable to harm, online exploitation and gangs – as well as having hardly anything to do over the school holidays.

What ties all these restrictions together is a requirement for children to socially distance – and more specifically, to do so in the same way that adults must. We wanted to understand the reasons for this, especially as research evidence is starting to indicate that, compared to adults, children are at lower risk from Covid-19 and play a limited role in transmitting it. Should public health guidance designed for adults be applied to children as well?

We therefore wrote to the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, to ask whether SAGE’s advice takes this into account. Specifically, we asked whether SAGE:

  • Has considered the differential susceptibility of children to Covid-19 compared with adults
  • Has explored the potential for differential social distancing requirements for adults and children
  • Recommends treating children in the same way as adults in terms of social distancing requirements

We have now received a response from Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty. It states that while SAGE regularly considers the evidence on children’s susceptibility to Covid-19, it has not considered different social distancing rules for children and adults – but has not specifically recommended the same social distancing rule either. Our letter, and the response we received, are below.

Since we wrote this letter, the government has published new guidance for the full reopening of schools in September, which does not impose a social distancing rule – it instead encourages schools to do it where possible but consider it as one element within an overall approach of balancing risk.

This is a welcome development, but there is more that can be done. Social distancing rules remain in place in other institutions including secure settings, which has led to greater isolation and confinement, less time outside and fewer visits from family.

More broadly, social distancing for children is still in place even when they are out in public, which severely limits their ability to play, take part in sports or activities and make the most of the summer. The Scottish government has recently removed all social distancing rules for children under 12, allowing them to play outside as normal – something we want to see in England as well.

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