Children were an afterthought in COVID-19 Policymaking, Oxford University and UNICEF reveal

Mary Daly

Children were not widely prioritised for protection or prevention during the first ‘shock period’ of the COVID-19 pandemic and policies implemented during that time are still affecting children today, reveals a new report from researchers at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention (DSPI) at the University of Oxford and UNICEF.

Analysis of the child and family policies implemented by 40 countries during the first year of the pandemic is published today alongside an extensive research database which highlights stark differences in how countries met the challenge.

Led by Professor Mary Daly, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at DSPI, with Dr Sunwoo Ryu, University of Bristol, the database is the first systematic comparative record of measures taken for children's welfare across 40 European Union (EU) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in 2020. Using a child-centred perspective, it measures the policy actions across six fields that are most important for children: education, early childhood education and care, paid parental leave, income support for families, food support, and health-related measures, adding important new evidence to the story of the pandemic for children.

Professor Mary Daly said: ‘The immediate and ongoing impact of COVID-19 policies on children has been too little considered and the full story of how well countries responded to children’s needs has still to be told. Children cannot speak for themselves and face ongoing needs to help them recover from the pandemic and to ensure that future policies better protect them. This report and database fill a pressing requirement for information and intelligence to enable us to learn lessons and not repeat mistakes.’

The report concludes that policy responses aimed at children and families tended to be short-term, reactive, and focused more around protecting adults rather than protecting children. About one-third of all the high-income countries studied created no new policies specifically aimed at supporting children in the first 9-10 months of the pandemic.

In a context where no country or international NGO has conducted an inquiry on what happened to children during the pandemic – as has happened around the treatment of older people and those in nursing homes, for example – the report’s key recommendations suggest countries need to move towards a transformative, child-centred approach to social protection and care policies. In this, policy makers must continue to provide for the COVID-19 generation of children and reinstate some of the positive measures for children that existed prior to the pandemic including guarantees for children to education and childcare services and explicit target setting around child poverty for example.

Professor Mary Daly said: ‘The pandemic remains hugely relevant today – it can teach us many lessons about our priorities and how they need to change. Children were not as high on the agenda as they should have been, although some countries did a lot better than others. Countries can learn from their own experience but also the experience of others.’

The ‘Child Policy During COVID-19 Database’ was part-funded by the UNICEF Innocenti - Global Office of Research and Foresight, and by the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford. The project was coordinated by Mary Daly, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at DSPI, with Dr Sunwoo Ryu, University of Bristol, Ertuğrul Polat, DPhil Student at DSPI, and Dr Dominic Richardson, former Chief, Social and Economic Policy Analysis at UNICEF Innocenti - Global Office of Research and Foresight. The Sustainable Digital Scholarship (SDS) Service at the University of Oxford, also provided consultation and help with the design and migration of records onto the platform.