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 House of Lords 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 of a spike in mental health problems in young people 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, as he unveiled a wave of measures designed to stop the spread of the disease. But he warned that nothing was off the table, if the rate of spread was not reduced.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock also said yesterday the Government has no plans to close schools again.
Peers also heard how up to 60 per cent of NHS staff 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
PTSD risk for Covid-19 frontline staff ‘at par with terrorist attack survivors’
The risk of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among frontline health and social care workers dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic is at par with terrorist attack survivors and soldiers returning from war, MPs have heard.
Dr Michael Bloomfield told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that this form of psychological trauma is also being seen among patients who have recovered after being severely ill with Covid-19.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events.
Those with the condition often relive traumatic events, such as actual or threatened loss of life or serious injury, through nightmares and flashbacks.
Dr Bloomfield, who is head of the translational psychiatry research group at the University College London, said that current survey data suggests PTSD rates among health and social care workers and survivors of severe Covid-19 is over 20%, and for anxiety disorders and depression, it is over 30%.
He added that while these figures may be over-estimated, ‘they are still significantly over the expected rates of these disorders’.
Dr Bloomfield said: ‘The available data indicates that the risk of PTSD amongst health and social care workers and patients who survived severe Covid is of a similar magnitude as those surviving other mass casualty events such as terrorist attacks, or as is seen in military personnel who’ve returned from war.’
He added: ‘There’s therefore an imminent need to both detect and treat the survivors of psychological trauma.’
Dr Bloomfield, who is also a co-founder of UCL’s Covid Traumatic Stress Clinic, said researchers have identified five groups at high risk of PTSD and other mental health adverse outcomes from Covid-19.
These include patients with severe disease, health and social care workers witnessing high numbers of patient deaths, those who have lost their loved ones as a result of Covid-19, children and vulnerable people who are victims of abuse and domestic violence, and patients with existing severe mental illness.
Dr Bloomfield said that without targeted screening programmes, detecting PTSD can be challenging because avoidance is a core symptom of the condition.
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.
Office for National Statistics data shows only four Covid-19 deaths were recorded in children aged one to 14-years-old in England and Wales, or less than 0.01 per cent of the total. And 574 have been recorded in those aged 15 to 44, or 0.96 per cent of the total.
In comparison, 39,058 people aged 75 and over have died from the virus, or 65 per cent of the total.
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 Mr 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.’