The British government was warned that more children would die by suicide than from COVID-19 before they ordered schools to be closed, a report by the parents’ campaign group UsForThem has found.
At a November 2020 Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) briefing that was attended by representatives from the Department for Education, the Cabinet Office, and the Home Office, as well as senior scientific advisors, a paper warned: “many more children will die from suicide than Covid-19 this year”. The report noted evidence of a rise in self-harming behaviours among young people that occurred during lockdown.
The Telegraph reported that according to UsForThem, the briefing was one of nine opportunities where the government failed to avert the consequences of school closures. The group's report noted that previous pandemic management plans assumed that mass school closures to be avoided.
“We urgently need answers as to why the UK deviated from its pandemic plan and closed schools initially without any clear support plan and why later when the damage was known and acknowledged by our most senior scientists and educationalists we closed schools again," said Danny Kruger, Conservative MP for Devizes in Wiltshire.
As early as February-March 2020, SAGE documents stated that closing schools would have a "highly limited" effect on viral transmission. UsForThem found that before the first school closures in March, a SAGE paper had already concluded that for school closures to have any impact, they would need to be closed for a lengthy period of time. This was not communicated to the public.
Despite the above findings, the government still decided to close schools for the majority of the 2021 spring term. 161 people ages 10-19 died by suicide in England in 2020, compared to 34 deaths from COVID-19 in the same age group.
“Despite many warnings and protestations to the contrary, the interests of children were overlooked on an industrial scale by the government throughout the COVID crisis, meaning that schools stayed closed for too long, safeguards for vulnerable children were weakened and the impact of isolation and withdrawal of support for children’s mental health were too often ignored," said Anne Longfield, chair of the Commission on Young Lives and former children’s commissioner for England.
“The consequences of these decisions are seen in a generation of children, many of whom are struggling with their education and social skills, sometimes with levels of chronic anxiety so severe that they are unable to attend school or socialise with friends.”
This is the first instalment in a planned series of reports by UsForThem, which campaigned to keep schools open during the pandemic. The group is asking for the U.K.'s official COVID-19 Inquiry to consider its evidence.
The Inquiry began hearing evidence on June 13 and has been divided into modules. The current active modules are Resilience and preparedness; Core UK decision-making and political governance; Impact of Covid-19 pandemic on healthcare systems in the 4 nations of the UK; and vaccines and therapeutics.
A Department for Education spokesman noted that the department is aware of the learning loss and mental health impacts of the pandemic. He said that the department has invested £5 billion into "education recovery initiatives." The government is also initiating Mental Health Support teams in schools on top of an existing annual £2.3 billion investment into mental health services.