Schools must stay open to protect children’s mental health and avoid the ‘immense’ economic and social consequences of another closure, scientists have warned.
Speaking at a meeting of the Science and Technology Committee via Zoom today, professors said Britain’s children and young people had missed out on crucial social interactions due to lockdown, at the expense of their mental health and education.
They said this group was paying the ‘greatest price’ for lockdown measures, despite being least at risk from the disease.
Professor Tamsin Ford, a child and adolescent psychiatry expert at the University of Cambridge, warned there had been a spike in mental health problems in young people – including negative emotions that could lead to depression – during lockdown.
‘If we can keep the schools open, we really need to do so because children are least at risk from the virus,’ she said. ‘The health, economic and social consequences of shutting schools are immense, so they are bearing the cost for us.’
Boris Johnson said in the Commons today that he would ‘do everything in my power’ to keep schools, colleges and universities open. But he warned that nothing was off the table, threatening the imposition of further closures and restrictions if the rate of spread did not reduce.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock also said yesterday that the Government has no plans to close schools again.
The Committee also heard how up to 60 per cent of people n NHS employment showed clinically significant symptoms during the pandemic – which included signs of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Dr Tamsin Ford, from Oxford University, told the Committee today that there had been a spike in mental health problems among children during lockdown
Professor Matthew Hotopf, from King’s College London, said young people were shouldering the ‘greatest burden’ despite being least at risk from the virus
Boris Johnson’s 10pm curfew ‘isn’t enough’, claims SAGE advisor
A government scientist has slammed the proposed 10pm curfew before it is announced, claiming it will not be enough to curb the spread of the virus.
Professor Calum Semple, from the University of Liverpool and a member of SAGE, said the measures will ‘have to go further’ to turn around the advance of the disease.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 he said: ‘We’re likely to see increased restrictions on the hospitality sector, I think. In time, it will probably have to go further than a 10pm curfew and table service only.’
He said new measures needed include keeping people away from the office, stopping mixing in households, and a move to online classes for sixth form colleges and universities.
Decrying the Rule of Six, he said: ‘I think the Rule of Six has been tried, it’s not had time to kick in yet, but based on the numbers I’m seeing, it doesn’t go far enough.
‘So, I do think we will be restricting inter-mingling between households.
‘The epidemiologists and scientists that I work with, and I’m not just talking about the ones on SAGE, I’d say there’s hardly a cigarette paper’s thickness between what we feel about this.
‘The time to act is now, we are in a serious situation, and the numbers that are rising are tracking the current worst case scenario.
‘So, there is significant anxiety among the science community and health community.’
Explaining the situation at his local hospital in Wirral, Liverpool, he said there were already several cases in intensive care.
‘We’re seeing a rise in hospital admissions,’ he said. ‘I can tell you our hospital on the Wirral has several cases in the intensive care unit.
‘A study that I run which looks at hospital cases in England, Scotland and Wales is seeing a rapid rise in case admissions and, interestingly, we’re actually seeing a rise in people between the age of 20 and 40, particularly women, which we didn’t see previously.
‘And that suggests that it’s community exposure in hospitality settings and care settings, which we didn’t see before, probably because people under the age of 50 are less invested in social distancing.’
Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty warned in an address yesterday that without decisive action the UK’s outbreak of coronavirus could spiral out of control.
Professor Tamsin told the Committee that children have been ‘notably absent’ from policy considerations made by the Government.
‘The pandemic hit at a background where there was consistent evidence coming out of surveys demonstrating that young people’s health was deteriorating,’ she said.
‘There have been papers on mental health in response to Covid but few studies have been included as sufficiently rigorous. Those in students suggest an increase in depression and anxiety, for most it was depression.’
She pointed to a study published in the Lancet in July that found reports of mental health problems for those aged 16 to 34 had risen twice as fast by the end of April, compared to those aged 55 and over.
Professor Matthew Hotopf, professor of General Hospital Psychiatry at King’s College London, warned the Committee: ‘The group which is at least risk of mortality are actually paying the greatest price in terms of social, economic and educational impacts. That is being seen in the mental health consequences.’
He added: ‘The buffering effect of being able to socialise is very important. In times of stress that’s what we do – we’re social animals – and although you go so far with platforms like (Zoom), you can only go so far.
‘If you reduce people’s capacity to socialise both with the reduction of daylight hours and less access to outdoor space, this will have an impact in terms of population mental health.’
Professor Nichola Rooney, a professor in consultant clinical psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, said: ‘If we think about what’s important to adolescents and young people it is peer interaction and that’s really important for their mental health.
‘So, I suppose, we can’t have a one size fits all approach and we have to think of ways of managing the virus in different populations.’
Their words come as the Government launched sweeping restrictions on the way people socialise in England in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.
The Prime Minister announced pubs, bars and restaurants are to have a 10pm curfew from Thursday this week, and move to table service only.
This is on top of the Rule of Six, which has significantly curtailed the size of groups that can socialise together. Children under 14 have not been included in the restriction in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson has also told workers to start working from home again tomorrow, despite a long campaign encouraging people to return to the office to ‘save the economy’.
Plans for a partial return of fans to stadiums from October 1 have been put on hold, amid rising infections in the UK.
But there are no immediate plans to shutter the education system again.
‘It is vital for children and young people to be in school,’ said Mr Johnson. ‘And we will do everything in our power to ensure that remains the case’.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, told the Committee how older people’s mental health has also suffered during the pandemic.
She said their surveys had revealed one in three felt more anxious than they did in March, and more than a third were feeling less motivated to seize the day.
‘The general sense we have is that this is an incredibly challenging time,’ she said.
‘And our worrying thoughts are how things are going to be over the next few weeks, and through the winter. Particularly the anxiety of knowing there’s a virus out there and if you catch it that might well be the end of it.
‘Isolation, loneliness: It’s a horrible cocktail of issues for older people, and we are very seriously concerned.’
Figures reveal that children and young people are at far lower risk of dying from the virus than those aged over 75.
Only four Covid-19 deaths were recorded in children aged one to 14-years-old, or 0.01 per cent of the total, and 574 have been recorded in those aged 15 to 44, or 1.37 per cent of the total.
In comparison, 39,058 people aged 75 and over have died from the virus, or 93.47 per cent of the total. As many as 41,788 people have died from coronavirus in the UK since the pandemic began.
A study published in Nature in July found patients aged 80 and over were 20 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than patients in their 50s, and more than a hundred times more likely to die than those younger than 40.
The research also revealed that men were about 59 per cent more likely to die from coronavirus than women, and patients from BAME backgrounds had a higher risk of dying than those from white backgrounds.
Speaking about contact between families yesterday Matt Hancock said that grandparents will be given the green light to look after their grandchildren, even in areas where a lockdown is in force.
The Health Secretary said he had ‘heard the concerns’ about the impact on parents who are reliant on childcare to do their jobs.
Boris Johnson has announced sweeping curbs on people’s lives as the Government attepts to get the virus under control
Speaking in the Commons yesterday he said: ‘We know from experience that local action can work when local communities come together to follow the rules, tackle the virus and keep themselves safe.
‘I know how hard this is. We are constantly looking for how we can ensure measures bear down on the virus as much as possible while protecting both lives and livelihoods.
‘I have heard the concerns about the impact of local action on childcare arrangements.
‘For many, informal childcare arrangements are a lifeline without which they couldn’t do their jobs.
‘So today I am able to announce a new exemption for looking after children under the age of 14 or vulnerable adults where that is necessary for caring purposes.
‘This covers both formal and informal arrangements. It does not allow for play dates or parties but it does mean that a consistent childcare relationship that is vital for somebody to get to work is allowed.’
The UK recorded a further 21 deaths from coronavirus yesterday, as the country battles a surge in new cases.