Coronavirus: children’s rights

Published 11/05/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

This article was last updated on 18 May 2020.

The lives of children and young people have changed beyond recognition due to the coronavirus pandemic. Schools have stopped providing education for the vast majority of pupils, there are limits to what children can do beyond their home and young people are unable to socialise with their friends.

Children’s health is thought to be ‘less likely to be affected significantly’ (para 6) if they get coronavirus, compared to older people for example. However, some children and young people with particular health conditions (including respiratory conditions such as cystic fibrosis) and those whose immune systems are compromised by treatment or disease may be at much higher risk. Shielding is advised for these groups.

Given the level of change to children’s everyday lives, there is concern about the impact on their mental health and well-being. There are also practical issues around safeguarding and child protection, how to support the most vulnerable children and continuity of learning for all pupils.

Our previous articles explore the impact of coronavirus on children and young people in relation to: schools, further and higher education, equality, human rights and poverty.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and duty of ‘due regard’

Governments around the world are making decisions about how to balance protecting public health and respecting human rights. However, the Welsh Government has a specific legal duty towards the rights of children.

The Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 places a duty on the Welsh Ministers to have ‘due regard’ to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in all decisions and actions they take. ‘Due regard’ is not defined in the Measure, although the concept of ‘due regard’ or to ‘have regard’ is commonplace in legislation.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) (PDF) has summarised the duty as:

Having due regard means a decision-maker must attend to the substance of a decision properly informed and aware of what must be considered before and at the time of making the decision, paying attention to any relevant objective. The decision-maker must take account of relevant evidence and exercise the due regard duty with rigour, and an open mind. The duty should be integrated into the discharge of the public functions.

One of the practical ways the Welsh Government introduced to ensure it complies with the 2011 Measure is to carry out Child Rights Impact Assessments (CRIAs) when developing and reviewing legislation and policy. However, scrutiny of the Welsh Government’s record of undertaking CRIAs has questioned their regularity and impact. It is also unclear (paras 107-119) whether any CRIAs have been undertaken in relation to the Welsh Government’s response to coronavirus.

The 2011 Measure requires the Welsh Ministers to publish a ‘Children’s Scheme’ setting out the arrangements they have made for securing compliance with the due regard duty.

The current version of the Welsh Government’s Children’s Rights Scheme (PDF) was approved by the Senedd in 2014. The Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services told the Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee in August 2019 (PDF) that the revised Children's Rights Scheme would be published in spring 2020.

The CYPE Committee has recently undertaken an inquiry into children’s rights and was due to publish its report around the start of the coronavirus outbreak. The Committee’s report and the Welsh Government’s publication of its revised Children’s Rights Scheme have been paused for the time being due to the coronavirus emergency.

A ‘grave physical, emotional psychological effect’

On 9 April 2020, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a statement (PDF) warning of the ‘grave physical, emotional and psychological effect’ of the pandemic on children and called upon all countries to protect the their rights. The UN Committee highlighted areas where governments should improve measures to respect the rights of the child, including:

  • education and online learning;
  • recreation and play;
  • safeguarding and child protection;
  • access to child-friendly information; and
  • ensuring children’s participation in decision-making processes on the pandemic.

The UN Human Rights Office has said that ‘all decisions and activities that concern children’ during the coronavirus crisis should be ‘guided by the principle of the best interest of the child’ and ‘essential child protection services must continue to be provided and accessible to all children’.

On a day to day level, the Minister for Health and Social Services’ portfolio responsibility for children and young people’s rights and responsibilities is carried out by the Deputy Minister, Julie Morgan MS. The Deputy Minister issued a statement on 1 May, setting out what the Government is doing to support children and young people and ‘keep them safe’ during the coronavirus crisis.

This was ahead of her and the Minister’s appearance before the CYPE Committee on 5 May to discuss the impact of coronavirus on children and young people’s health and well-being.

Disruption to schooling and potential for greater inequality

Our previous article outlined the impact of coronavirus on the right children have to an education under Article 28 of the UNCRC and Article 2 of the Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF). It also discussed how the Welsh Government aims to mitigate the risk that varying access to digital technology will widen inequality during this disruption to schooling.

The Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams MS, told the CYPE Committee on 28 April (para 69):

Officials are very aware of our responsibilities towards children's rights in this regard and we are doing whatever we can to ensure that children have an equal opportunity and have equal access to learning at this time.

The Welsh Government has pointed to its existing digital education services as evidence of what it is doing in this regard. This includes the online resource site Hwb and the free provision of Microsoft Office for families of school pupils, as well as its recent announcement of £3 million to address digital exclusion amongst poorer households.

The Welsh Government has ruled out schools in Wales reopening on 1 June and has set out a ‘traffic light’ approach to lifting lockdown, including priority groups of pupils returning to school in a phased approach (Amber) before all children and students can return (Green). However, the Welsh Government has not given any anticipated dates for such changes and said this will depend on the level of the coronavirus transmission rate (R).

More detail is given in the Welsh Government’s decision framework for the next phase of education and childcare, while one of our other articles discusses how Wales and other UK nations plan to exit lockdown more generally.

Cancellation of exams

The summer 2020 exam series has been cancelled meaning that GCSE and A level students will receive a grade based on several factors, including mock exam results and other work completed to date. Our article on coronavirus and schools gives more information on this.

Essentially, teachers will submit a grade for their students based on what they believe they would have obtained had they taken the exams. This will then be subject to external moderation. The independent regulator, Qualifications Wales, has consulted on how exactly the grading process will work.

The Sutton Trust has looked at the impact the different process of awarding qualifications could have on certain students, for example those from more deprived backgrounds. There may be perceptions of winners and losers, with some young people possibly feeling aggrieved that they have not been given the chance to show their full potential under exam conditions.

Emotional and mental health

The NSPCC has reported ‘unprecedented demand’ for its Childline service during the pandemic and highlighted (PDF) the main concerns of children and young people as follows:

Young people use the word ‘trapped’ to describe how they feel about being at home, particularly since strict social distancing measures were put in place. Not being able to go to school, visit family or friends or take part in activities outside of the family home is having a negative impact on their mental health.

The Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething MS, told the CYPE Committee on 5 May (para 36) that the Welsh Government was trying to ‘fully understand’ what the impact of coronavirus and the stay at home measures would be on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. The Minister said:

It is a real worry list for me about how we understand the impact on the mental health and well-being of children and young people, and to move forwards, that we don't end up with an entire generation of children and young people who grow up with a range of damage because we haven't thought about what that will look like. So, the mental health recovery plan will of course be of very real importance to me. In amongst all the other priorities I have, I'm certainly not going to allow the mental health and well-being of children and young people to be forgotten.

This answer to a Written Question outlines what Welsh Government is doing to support children and young people’s emotional and mental health during the coronavirus pandemic, including £1.25 million to provide additional counselling services for those who experiencing increased stress or anxiety.

Safeguarding and child protection

With schools closed for the vast majority of pupils, a significant part of the safeguarding system has been impaired. The NSPCC has produced a four-nation briefing on safeguarding vulnerable pupils during the coronavirus crisis.

The Minister for Health and Social Services told Members of the Senedd on 22 April (para 98) that he was concerned about the reduction in referrals and reports of concern for children (and adults) at risk of harm, abuse or neglect during the coronavirus outbreak. Fewer referrals doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer children are at risk of harm, but that not as many cases are brought to the attention of the relevant authorities who can then intervene.

Commenting on a 20% rise in calls to the NSPCC’s child protection service during lockdown, the Minister told the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee (paras 287-288) he was ‘really concerned’ about the safeguarding picture for vulnerable children. Answering questions from the CYPE Committee (paras 78-81), the Deputy Minister referred to the service being provided in school hubs and said that local authorities are ‘keeping close touch as far as they possibly can’ with vulnerable children.

The Welsh Government has set out ‘five ways to keep young people safe during the coronavirus lockdown’. More detail is available in the guidance it has issued on supporting vulnerable children and young people, and safeguarding in education.

Looked after children

The National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) has written an open letter to the Welsh Government calling for ‘action to protect the rights and needs of care-experienced children and young people during the COVID-19 response’.

The Welsh Government has issued operational guidance for children's social care providers (including local authorities, children’s care homes, adoption and fostering services) on how they can change their services to support children and young people in care during the coronavirus emergency. The emphasis is on doing things differently, not doing less. Welsh Government officials emphasised to the CYPE Committee (paras 112-119) that there have been no easements of statutory duties on children’s social services, with assessments still taking place for child protection and safeguarding concerns.

Voices from Care Cymru, an independent young person-led charity, have set out their ‘offer’ of a virtual engagement plan for care-experienced children and young people. This includes social check-ins, wellbeing support, virtual hangouts and information and advice among other services.

Access to information and involvement in decision-making

The UNCRC includes rights for children to have access to information (Article 17) and to have their views respected and taken seriously (Article 12). The Children’s Commissioner for Wales has emphasised the right of children to good quality information about what is happening regarding coronavirus and has provided an information hub for children, young people and families. The Children’s Commissioner has also written about ‘what the lockdown has made visible about children’s lives’.

The impact of coronavirus on young people was discussed in a special meeting of the Welsh Youth Parliament, chaired by the Llywydd. Welsh Youth Parliament Members questioned the First Minister and the Minister for Education about issues including mental health support, overuse of screen time and too much schoolwork.

The Welsh Government, the Children’s Commissioner, the Welsh Youth Parliament and Youth Cymru are undertaking an online survey with children to gather their views on how they have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

There have been claims in the past, including from the previous Children’s Commissioner in 2014 that ‘the Welsh Government seems too comfortable with its status as an international children’s rights trailblazer’, suggesting a loss of urgency and momentum.

Wales has been at the forefront of legislating and putting into practice a commitment to children’s rights in the way that it governs and holds to account. Maintaining this in a time of national crisis is arguably more important than ever but is the ultimate test.

The Children, Young People and Education Committee is currently gathering views on the impact of the pandemic on children and young people. The Committee has written to the Welsh Government (PDF) following recent evidence sessions with Ministers.

Article by Michael Dauncey, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.