What Are We Doing to Our Children?

There follows a guest post by Hugh McCarthy, a retired Headteacher in Northern Ireland who until recently served as a Director on two of the province’s main education councils and who remains a ministerial appointment on one. He is horrified by what society has inflicted on children over the past two years in the name of combating a virus from which they are not at risk – and all as the evidence piled up of how much it was harming them.

I welcome the recent Ofsted report highlighting the damaging effects of the Covid restrictions on the development and learning of young children. It highlights a huge range of damaging impacts, including:

  • delays in babies’ physical development
  • a generation of babies struggling to crawl and communicate
  • babies suffering delays in learning to walk
  • babies struggling to respond to basic facial expression.
  • toddlers struggling to make friends, with their speech and language, and toileting independently
  • regression in children’s independence 
  • children with limited vocabulary

The report also highlights the ongoing negative impact of face masks on young children’s language and communication skills, noting that those turning two years old will have been surrounded by adults wearing masks and who have therefore been unable to see lip movements or mouth shapes regularly.

The observations of Ruth Sedgewick, the Head of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) in Northern Ireland, back up what the reports says.

A growing number of young children in Northern Ireland are experiencing significant communication problems following the COVID-19 lockdowns. We’re seeing children who can’t talk at all, they grunt or they point at things they want. They don’t know how to speak to the other children and if they want a toy they will push the other child out of the way or snatch a toy from them. We’re seeing more children who can’t sort shapes or do three or four piece jigsaws.

There are also children who become distressed because they can’t communicate, either because they can’t understand what is being said to them or because they can’t express themselves. They would have been about two-years-old or younger at the start of the pandemic and have spent half their lives in the pandemic so it has really impacted on them.

However, it is not surprising a large proportion of young children are struggling with communication. During lockdown, very young children were essentially cut off from the world, they missed out on all of the very important experiences we know help them to develop their communication and language skills.

Now as we have come out of lockdown, life hasn’t even really returned to normal, think about all the play areas in coffee shops, GP surgeries, dentists, they aren’t there anymore, which also curtails opportunities for children to socialise. Masks have also had a big impact as children aren’t getting the same opportunity to see facial expressions.

Young children who have communication problems can fail to reach their educational potential as they grow older, so it is vital services are provided now to address any issues.

Such learning and developmental issues show up as children get older. National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) research published in March reports that the negative impact of Covid lockdowns on reading progress was greatest among Key Stage 1 pupils and particularly those in Year 1. It says the impact of lockdowns on the development of literacy skills at an early age is of “particular concern”, as “early reading plays a key part in children’s later achievement”.

This research also emphasises the need for schools to be adequately resourced in order to reduce the risk of having reluctant readers, and the associated negative impact this has on “self-esteem and, potentially, behaviour”. It suggests that pupils in year groups 1 and 2 “are at risk of future educational underachievement”.

This educational damage and life-changing impact continues through the age range. As early as November 2020, Ofsted had reported that the majority of our children were going backwards educationally.

The guidance given to schools and children was stark: “Isolation guidance will be provided… and may result in friendship groups, regular contacts or bubbles being instructed to self isolate at home.” It was destined to have the outcomes it did.

What scientific evidence on the potential harms was available to policymakers?

Decision makers would have been aware of the damage the policies were doing, particularly as the months progressed, since the information has been in the public domain, beginning in 2020, much of it from Government agencies, international organisations and leading scientists.

The harms of the restrictions on children may be attributed to two main issues:

  1. Children not being at school due to school closures or being sent home to isolate after testing positive; this harmed their  socialisation, development and learning.
  2. The wearing of masks harmed their speech, language, psychological and social development.

Firstly I shall consider the evidence available on the damage caused by children not being at school.

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at Stanford University, in November 2020 stated: “School closures are the single greatest generator of inequality.” He called it an “incredibly unequal unfair immoral policy”.

Dr. Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University, said in December 2020:

A tiered approach or some version of lockdown leaves open the enormous harms of lockdowns, the harms are too extreme. They don’t solve the problem. We keep saying schools are open, but they are not operating in a way that prevents the harms that accrue, particularly in deprived children not going to school, their attendance is interrupted regularly by someone in their class testing positive. Youth suicides are rising. We need to consider how pernicious lockdowns are particularly with regards to school children.

Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, said in August 2020: “There is overwhelming evidence that missing school is more harmful for children than the virus… Many more children are likely to be harmed by not going to school than by going… They are more likely to have physical and mental ill health issues in the long run.”

It is the most vulnerable who were most affected. When pupils are out of school, teachers cannot pick up the early warning signs of abuse or neglect and children have no one who they can tell – “the invisibility of vulnerable children” as Ofsted calls it in its annual report, published December 1st 2020.

A UNESCO report on the effects of Covid policy on our children was damning.

School closures carry high social and economic costs for people across communities. Their impact however is particularly severe for the most vulnerable and marginalised boys and girls and their families. The resulting disruptions exacerbate already existing disparities within the education system but also in other aspects of their lives. These include… [the impact of] interrupted schooling – schooling provides essential learning and when schools close, children and youth are deprived opportunities for growth and development. Schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools close, many children and youth miss out of on social contact that is essential to learning and development.

As Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told the House of Commons Education Committee on January 19th 2021: “When we close schools we close their lives.”

As 2021 went on, more reports emerged highlighting the damage being done to children.

Public Health England said in March 2021: “The long term harm of keeping children out of school was enormous.”

The Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales, Anne Longfield, reported also in March that the class of 2021 had lost the equivalent of 840 million school days. It would be astonishing if such massive absence did not impact on learning and development.

A report by Brown University, USA, in November 2021 and reported in the Daily Mail found a 23% drop in children’s development. An earlier report in conjunction with Rhode Island Hospital stated that “children born during the pandemic have significantly reduced verbal, motor and overall cognitive performance compared to children born pre-pandemic”. It also highlighted the impact of mask-wearing and policies such as shelter-in-place and social distancing.

This amounts to a substantial and growing body of evidence and expert opinion in the public domain setting out the harms caused by children not being at school.

I shall now turn to the evidence highlighting the damage caused by masks.

Both the Ofsted report and the NFER report as well as the research by the Brown University refer to the role played by masks in restricting speech and language development.

Many scientific studies have confirmed the harmful physical, psychological and behavioural effects of mask-wearing. A review by data analyst organisation PANDA in March 2021 reported these adverse effects including headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath and psychological impacts.

In October 2020, Dr. Margareta Griesz-Brisson, Director of the London Neurology and Pain Clinic, one of Europe’s leading neurologists, stated that: “To deprive a child’s or an adolescents’ brain from oxygen, or to restrict it in any way, is not only dangerous to their health, it is absolutely criminal. Oxygen deficiency inhibits the development of the brain, and the damage that has taken place cannot be reversed.” She refers to the acute warning symptoms such as headaches, drowsiness and a reduction in cognitive function.

The potential impact on children’s social and emotional development of making them spend time surrounded by people whose facial expressions are covered may have disastrous consequences, according to the Still Face experiment findings.

The experiment, carried out in 2012, revealed that children become emotionally distressed when they are unable to see and reciprocate facial expressions. According to the findings, having children spend time around people whose facial expressions are masked could have potentially disastrous consequences for their social and emotional development.

More than a hundred child psychologists and academics highlighted in a letter on June 17th 2020 to the Times the mental health risks to children, describing lockdown as a “national disaster.” In the letter, Professor Ellen Townsend and colleagues highlight the “rising anxiety and loneliness” and say suicide is already the leading cause of death in five to 19 year-olds.

Dr. Raj Persaudi, a Consultant Psychiatrist, explained in May 2020 that the brain fills in the gaps in what we know about others and so the brain speculates on what the mask is hiding. He says: “In a pandemic the face mask looks like it might be concealing a dangerous infection. Filling in the gaps what you know about others but doing so under background conditions where the brain projects threat onto the outside world, is now linked to serious mental illness.”

Dr. Paul Alexander, a former Assistant Professor at McMaster University, adviser to President Trump and a specialist in Covid research stated on March 10th 2021 regarding masks: “There is tremendous psychological damage to infants and children, with potential catastrophic impacts on the cognitive development of children.”

A study in the British Medical Journal reported a “significant” increase in depression during school closures which will have a “long term negative effect on their overall psychological well-being” and are “destroying” a generation.

At the very least, the Government should be clear that young parents and others with responsibility for small children ought never to wear a face mask around those in their care.

In addition to this, face masks do not work to significantly reduce the spread of Covid, according to the evidence. Dr. Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, told the N.I. Executive on August 10th 2020 that mandatory face coverings was the wrong policy: “By all means people can wear masks but they can’t say it’s an evidence based decision.”

The U.K. Government’s own recently published Evidence Summary on the use of face coverings in education settings found no statistically significant effect on transmission. The evidence shows they serve no purpose in controlling the spread of Covid.

The same Evidence Summary acknowledges the harm inflicted by face masks in class:

  • 80% of pupils reported that wearing a face covering made it difficult to communicate, and more than half felt wearing one made learning more difficult.
  • Face coverings may have physical side effects and impair face identification, verbal and non-verbal communication between teacher and learner.

Where are we now? Moving forward

Why has all this evidence been ignored and why are we continuing to pursue such damaging policies? The head of the UKHSA, Dame Jenny Harries, is still encouraging the wearing of face masks indoors in England, while Wales and Northern Ireland are “strongly recommending” the use of face coverings in all indoor settings. In Scotland the legal requirement to wear a mask is finally to be lifted after Easter for the first time since summer 2020, but the public will still be advised to wear one.

The most up to date data from the Department for Education reveal that the number of pupils absent due to Covid-related attendance restrictions has more than doubled in a fortnight from March 17th to March 31st. While this figure fell at primary level, from 3,300 on March 17th to 1,900 on March 31st, it almost tripled in secondary schools – from 11,900 on March 17th to 30,100 on March 31st. One-in-five of all state-funded schools had more than 15% of their teachers and school leaders absent for any reason on March 31st.

Dame Rachel De Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, said “thousands of pupils left school during lockdowns and never came back… estimates suggest 1,782,000 children were persistently absent and 124,000 children were severely absent”. Her report argues that this means vulnerable pupils could fall through the cracks and miss out on crucial support.

Professor Mark Woolhouse, an infectious diseases expert and a member of SpiM modelling group which provided pandemic advice to the Government, stated:

Lockdowns – an idea concocted by China and WHO made a bad situation worse… A global public health failure on a massive scale, it was untried and not thought through. Harmful restrictions were imposed without evidence that such measures would work. Even when it became clear some of the restrictions were not needed the U.K. continued to impose them at great cost to lives, livelihoods and society. We never had a proper debate. We did serious harm to children and young adults who were robbed of their education, jobs and a normal existence.

The risk-benefit analysis, which should have revealed much of this and which I called for in the Belfast Newsletter on October 2nd 2020, has still not been carried out. It would have revealed the need for a realistic view of risk to children and their parents.

The sad reality is that children’s wellbeing and life chances have been seriously damaged by measures designed to combat a virus from which they have a 99.999% survival chance, measures which cause them great harm and were known to do so. Why was all the evidence ignored?

The Ofsted report refers to the importance of “catch up”.  But catch up is not possible if we keep doing the same things that caused the problem in the first place.  

We need to:

  • carry out a full risk-benefit analysis
  • advise young parents and others who care for children in particular not to wear masks
  • allow parents back into schools to renew the parent-teacher partnership
  • stop testing children
  • stop sending children home
  • end the speculation over renewed lockdowns
  • recognise the harms and implement immediately measures to address them by targeting investment at key age groups

As the Christian theologist Dietrich Bonhoffer said: “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” It is time to put the children first.

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