Four months ago I saw a photo which changed me. That photo, now infamous, showed nursery age children sitting alone, looking lost, in two metre squares against the dark concrete backdrop of a playground. It was a photo taken in France but it was a portrait of a future coming our way. A future of regimented children, spilt from their friends; where play – childhood, in fact – was restricted. As a mother of a then three and six year-old, it was a future which I knew I must reject.
Before that moment I had been an activist-in-waiting. I’d had many activist-in-waiting thoughts, had even committed one or two of them to paper. I’d a half-built website ready and waiting, biding time for the right moment, or the right people, to come along, and a half-baked vision to go with it all. Something about families, and making the UK a more hospitable environment for them.
For, as anyone who is raising a child in this country will know, raising a child in this country is tough. Even before COVID-19 hit our shores, we’re a country with a ruling class apparently unable to make policy for a term spanning their children’s lifetimes as well as their own – a country whose cities and infrastructure cater to young professionals ahead of working families and whose childcare is patchy and underfunded. A postcode lottery underpins the quality of the schooling which shapes our children’s lives and maternity policies – or perhaps more pertinently, paternity policies – exacerbate and entrench existing inequalities. Is it any surprise that, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, our children rank an underwhelming 27th out of 38 in the rich country list for child wellbeing?
I spent a long time – months, perhaps years – in that state: pondering, occasionally writing, invariably whinging. But then, one Tuesday morning while nonchalantly slurping my coffee and scrolling through social media, that photo popped into my feed and with it an instinctively visceral reaction that propelled me to action. I looked at it. Then stared a while. Then thought – you’ll have to excuse the profanity but there really is no other way to put it:
“WHAT THE FUCK?!”
Because anyone with an ounce of humanity will know that this is no way to treat a child.
The harms of lockdown and social isolation on children are now, sadly, much better understood, having been written about by a growing number of increasingly alarmed child welfare experts. But you don’t need a psychology doctorate to understand that something that restricts young children’s play in such an abrupt and blunt manner is not likely to be positive for educational and social development – you just need to be a parent. And as parent, once you get an idea in your head that something is harming your child, it becomes hard to let it go. I realised it was not only my right, but my duty, to say, “No.”
As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. There in my Twitter feed was another parent with an identical reaction to mine, swearing and all, quickly followed by a third. We issued various further eminently deletable tweets, agreed something looked very wrong with this scene, and that for the sake of our children we needed to stop it. And thus UsforThem was born, and with it a political activist – in fact, three political activists. We’re a lobby group, all volunteers. Our original band of three has grown into an army of tens of thousands spread across all four nations of the UK and beyond – parents, grandparents, carers, psychologists, teachers, lawyers and many more besides, united by a belief that children’s interests must now be front and centre in our response to Covid. Our keystone campaign calls for schools to be opened – and to stay open – with sensible hygiene protocols in place, but without the other disproportionate measures that we have seen so many schools implement. We call on the Government to set out an exit strategy – a day when schools really will return to normal – and to commit to restoring children’s rights in full, and in line with international law.
We began campaigning that week and haven’t stopped in the months since. It would be great to say we’d won, that social distancing for children had been consigned to the dustbin of history. But to the contrary. In England at least, we’re accelerating down the wrong path we took nearly six months ago, hurtling to a destination I fear we don’t understand. In that time the Government – I have stopped using the prefix “our”, they no longer govern in my name – has made decisions which, far from placing children’s welfare first, indicate that children are barely given a second thought. The examples coming into UsforThem flow in too thick and fast now to process the full horror. Many are shocking, some are heartbreaking.
We’ve had moments of success: schools have – for now – reopened, prominent open letters have been coordinated, and countless private ones sent, and no doubt partly as a result key voices in and out of Government are at least now acknowledging some of the many issues of child welfare at stake. Mainly, though, we get deflected, batted from pillar to post. Though the Prime Minister speaks the rhetoric – acknowledging there is a “a moral duty” and “national priority” to get children back into school – the reality we’re seeing from the grim vantage point of our front row seats tells a different story. Our greatest success may yet be in rallying public opinion. I sense that finally others start to see what we saw that very first day: that we’re using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and we do so without the consent of those we’re harming the most.
Everything I felt when we launched the campaign still, sadly, stands. A Government that placed children’s welfare as a primary consideration in its decision making – as ours is required to do under the much cited, but flagrantly violated, UN Convention on the Rights of The Child – would have not have made some of the choices ours has. It would most certainly not carry on making those decisions now that the level of harm they are causing is known: further restrictions on social contact, virtual learning, abandoning teenagers – still, really, children – in university halls to spend a bleak Christmas alone. Our inability to have an honest conversation about the various trade-offs baffles me – the moral and economic sensibility of incarcerating and then vandalising the development of a cohort of children in the name of protecting another sector of our society is a huge deal. It’s something that needs talking about.
The next generation needs a Government strong enough to have that debate and creative enough to work out a better alternative. As a parent, I believe we must say ‘No’ to this grotesque modern day version of Milgram’s Experiment and let the young live their lives, normally. I believe we must also find a way to ensure that never again can decisions affecting so many children be made without consulting those who have their welfare at heart. In all matters concerning children, the voice of parents must be allowed a place in policy making and implementation, and if this Government can’t, or won’t guarantee that, I would like to find one that can and will.