Alice Bragg


No play, no pals, fraught parents: How lockdown is hitting the under-fives

THE devastating impact of the pandemic response on the under-fives has been revealed in research from the parent campaign group UsforThem.

In survey of 647 parents, 60 per cent reported being more concerned about their child’s development than they were at the start of the coronavirus restrictions.

This comes at a time when visits from health visitors are severely restricted. Eighty-six per cent of parents with children under two report no home visits, with video conferencing not providing the same opportunities for professionals to observe children’s development.

A report by University College London shows the extent of the harm this could be causing. Ninety-six per cent of health visitors surveyed were concerned that they may be missing violence towards children. Paediatric trauma wards have witnessed a surge in injuries caused by child physical abuse during the pandemic.

In addition to the decline in home visits, the UsforThem survey revealed that almost 50 per cent of new mothers had no access to either baby weighing clinic or in-person breastfeeding support.

These groups are a lifeline for new mothers, providing not only practical health checks for the baby, but also the opportunity for parents to seek crucial advice and support.

The vast majority of these groups are now held online. However, research suggests the effectiveness of virtual versus face-to-face contact is uncertain.  Without the practical, emotional and social support of these face-to-face groups, combined with other aspects of lockdown, both parent and child wellbeing are likely to suffer.

Comments from mothers who were surveyed support this picture. One said: ‘My baby has not been weighed since birth. I have no idea if they are on the right track, as health visitors said clinics (are) closed, and appointment only if something (is) really wrong. No groups either or support.’

Another confided: ‘My mental health has affected my ability to care and be compassionate with my children’ and ‘I believe, due to the pandemic, it has increased the anxiety in both me and my son’.

Understandably, the welfare of parents directly affects their ability to communicate positive and nurturing messages to their children – crucial factors in youngsters developing into adults who can achieve their greatest potential and live happy adulthoods. The impact of these factors is more severe among families living in poverty and deprivation.

The risk of deterioration in maternal mental health is compounded by the closure of playgroups and children’s centres across the country. Three-quarters of respondents attended playgroups before the pandemic. Of those, 65 per cent said they did so, in part, to meet other parents.

The vital support provided by these groups was acknowledged by the Government and they were given an exemption to open under Tier 4. Nevertheless, 75 per cent of parents have seen their local playgroups remain shut throughout.

The frustration is tangible: ‘My child is an only child, and has had virtually no interaction with other children of ANY AGE, ALL YEAR,’ was a typical mother’s comment. ‘Swimming is socially distanced, baby yoga too. Play centres are the only place where parents let kids play normally together, and they’ve hardly been open.’

In presenting the findings of a recent report by The Royal Foundation into early-years development, the Duchess of Cambridge warned that the pandemic had dramatically increased parental loneliness.

Affecting 63 per cent of parents, loneliness, along with factors such as financial insecurity and a feeling of being trapped, is associated with a condition called, ‘parental burnout’.

More commonly noted in lower-income families, this is understood as a prolonged response to chronic and overwhelming parental stress. The result is abuse and neglect towards children in parents who would otherwise be able to cope. Lockdown measures may be creating conditions for parental burnout when it would not otherwise occur.

The impact of restrictions on childhood socialisation was alarming for the majority of parents surveyed. Particularly from age three upwards, children learn vital socialisation skills which shape their relationships for the rest of their lives.

Clinical psychologist Dr Harrie Bunker-Smith says: ‘Play and social interaction are crucial for child development. They enable the development of skills such as sharing and problem-solving, building and maintaining relationships, and in turn further developing a child’s sense of self.  These allow our little ones to grow up to be the happiest and most successful adults they can be.’

Before the pandemic, 90 per cent of parents reported attending playgroups so their children could interact with kids their own age. Now that facilities are closed and the population is restricted from meeting family and friends, there is a marked drop in opportunities for children to play together.

Of those children not attending formal childcare, the UsforThem survey showed that 50 per cent spent less than half an hour socialising with other children in a given week. Again, it is the least advantaged that suffer the most, as children from lower socio-economic groups are less likely to access childcare.

Studies show that isolated children who do not get crucial early social experiences are more likely to grow into adults with higher psychological distress and reduced academic attainment.

The comments from parents on socialisation exude a general sense of dismay; parents watching helplessly as separation from other children takes its toll on their child. ‘The Covid restrictions have been absolutely terrible for my boy,’ one mother reports. ‘He has become scared of people, including children, and stopped speaking completely, including to say even yes or no.’

Another writes: ‘My youngest has a number of development delays. It’s really hard to tell how much of that is down to the pandemic and the fact that he has barely been able to socialise with other children his own age.’

Even without marked developmental delays, parental instincts are on the alert: ‘I worry about his social development sometimes and what this may do to his confidence.’

It is unsurprising that 61 per cent of parents no longer take their child out on everyday errands, or take them out significantly less than they used to.

Of those children still regularly participating in everyday activities, there have been instances of under-fives being banned from libraries, places of worship and retail outlets. This further restricts opportunities for young children to learn more about the world. And yet social development relies on children observing and eventually modelling behaviour they see around them.

With so many groups closed and wider family and community prevented from plugging the gap, parents are resorting to screens.

A study for Oxford Brookes University showed 75 per cent of babies and toddlers spent more time on screens during the initial lockdown. Covering the period up to December 2020, the UsforThem survey puts the figure at 68 per cent.

This is in spite of NHS guidelines recommending no screen time for children under two, and only one hour for those aged two and above.

When asked if they would like their children to spend more time with kids of a similar age, but are prevented from doing so by the pandemic regulations, 76 per cent of parents said they would. Their anxiety and frustration is palpable.

And what of the frustration of the children themselves? Missing out on the most fundamental aspects of childhood – play, friendships, going outside and experiencing day-to-day life; the confusion of being forced to isolated for 14 days should a Covid case arise in their group.

It is therefore unsurprising that incidences of anger amongst children and young people have increased, with an exponential rise in child violence towards parents of the most vulnerable children and those with special educational needs.

In an Oxford University study, 69 per cent of social workers reported an increase in referrals for families experiencing CAPV – Child and Adolescent Parental Violence – and 64 per cent said the severity or incidence of violence had increased.

It is almost ten months since pandemic restrictions were put in place and still no end is in sight. For many parents, the hope that their children will quickly bounce back is receding.

Professionals working across all child development sectors are expressing a profound concern about children’s capacity to withstand these conditions.

For a great number of parents the harm is felt instinctively. Without recourse to friends, family and community to meet the need left by closures, parents are forced to accept the tragic reality that they simply may not be able to give their child the start in life that they had hoped to.

Dr Bunker-Smith reminds us that ‘our early experiences significantly inform the rest of our lives; our academic achievement, our relationships, our levels of long-term wellbeing and our outlook on life itself.  It is vitally important that we remember the long-term consequences of decisions which impact our youngest members of society’.


Let us play! Toddlers locked out by Covid buck-passers

DESPITE Herculean efforts to become Covid-secure, the vast bulk of early years providers – playgroups, children’s centres, forest schools, children’s activity programmes – closed their doors at the start of the second lockdown.

Add to this soft play areas, swimming pools, theatres and, of course, people’s own homes, and the chance of a toddler being able to meet and play with another toddler is reduced to almost nil. Hence the huge surge in playground use by parents since the lockdown began.

According to the Register of Play Inspectors, one in three parents took their children to a playground in the first week of lockdown, producing a flurry of communications to playground managers updating their risk assessments. It is pretty rare to see a rush on playgrounds in November.

I was one of those parents, and it was a source of great relief to see other families at the playground. Socialisation and physical activity are vital for children’s development, nurturing communication skills, building physical agility and laying foundations for future relationships. Now the majority of early years providers are closed. So for us, playgrounds are a lifeline.

A recent OFSTED report found that an astonishing 53% of playgroup staff noted a decline in children’s personal, social and emotional development after the first national lockdown.

Some children had returned to playgroup less confident. Others had regressed to using dummies or reverted to nappies when previously they had been potty trained. As ever, the children hit hardest tend to be from deprived backgrounds, as well as those with learning difficulties or disabilities. One playgroup manager described a second national lockdown as ‘a disaster for children’.

Unless the Government views baby and toddler development as dispensable in its strategy to fight Covid-19, why have ministers not take steps to ensure these vital facilities remain open?

The answer is to be found in two words: ‘provides support’. As long as a baby and toddler group provides support, it can open its doors to 15 adults and an unlimited number of children under the age of five.

To a parent, the question of whether these groups provide support is a no-brainer, especially when children are cut off from extended family during full or partial lockdowns. So why have so few opted to continue?

Some would argue that the guidance is confusing, creating obstacles that providers struggle to overcome. . In a letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Labour MP Ellie Reeves called for sector-specific guidance to be drawn up in order to give certainty.

However, sector-specific guidance was published for soft play areas and, instead of triggering widespread reopening, it led to more closures.

To some, there seems too much guidance, often overlapping and contradictory as the various components of toddler care are regulated individually, such as separate guidance for venues and for childminders. With so many hurdles to jump, it is no wonder that so many playgroups have chosen not to reopen. But where does that leave our children?

Early years provision breaks down roughly into four categories: Children’s centres, voluntary church groups, forest schools and independent practitioners running activities in venues which they hire.

These providers are, to varying degrees, under the umbrella of larger organisations such as the Early Years Alliance or the Forest School Association. In the case of churches, policy is overseen by the House of Bishops in the General Synod. All are under the authority of their local council.

Charting a way through the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic, individual providers naturally look to these organisations for a steer. But the message overall has been weak, pushing responsibility back on to the shoulders of individuals and small organisations.

Rather than emphasise the significant shift in Government policy towards continuing baby and toddler provision this time round, the Early Years Alliance sent out a muted email to its members on November 5, offering a FAQs page that explained the guidance without any apparent urge for members to make use of it.

In a similar, dispassionate statement on its website, the Forest School Association referred trainers ‘to the section of the guidance requesting that training be moved online where possible during this period’.

The Children’s Activities Association went further, explicitly urging its 1,000-plus members to stop running classes in a face-to-face format. The reclassification of baby and toddler groups as providing support, thereby permitting them to stay open, has not made it on to the CAA web page, so the advice remains the same.

In the case of churches, where voluntary groups offered local and often very inexpensive early years provision, the stipulations for restarting groups laid out on the Church of England website feel weighty and burdensome.

Again, the responsibility is thrown back into the hands of volunteers. If they ‘cannot assure themselves … that they can satisfactorily meet the requirements, then it is recommended that this type of activity should not be held’. It comes as no surprise that almost no church groups have started up again since closing in March.

Add to this the ever-present fear. Not of contracting Covid-19. Most young children, if they contract it at all, experience it mildly and mortality rates in adults under 65 are very low.

It is the fear of being shut down by local council officials who are writing and enforcing their own version of the rules, by police who are ‘visiting’ forest schools and questioning leaders, or driving menacingly slowly past community venues.

Fear of the reputation damage should a case of Covid be associated with your group, even indirectly and quickly overcome, as it is in the vast majority of cases. The fear of being abused on social media, accused of putting other people’s lives at risk.

But what of the risk to children who are being denied their chance to play, communicate, socialise, move freely and gain new skills at this formative age?

What of the risk to those toddlers sitting in front of screens all day when they should be learning through playing? What of the risk to young children who live in a chaotic environment and need these activities as a healthy release?

The average age of death from Covid-19 is 82 years old. This is higher than the average life expectancy. Can we really justify passing the burden of this virus on to the youngest and most vulnerable: Our babies and our toddlers?

And yet parents, who would be the first to contract the virus in the event their toddler catches it, and who are more inclined to be in contact with elderly parents they love and cherish, are visiting playgrounds in droves.

If only the organisations that purport to champion children’s wellbeing, along with the Church of England – the very custodian of God’s children – would reconsider their priorities, perhaps the nation’s children might have a chance of escaping this lockdown without suffering any more harm.

But more than anything, reopening baby and toddler provision needs the unequivocal backing of the Prime Minister and the Government. Without it, these small, often independent, providers are at the mercy of the officious new Covid enforcers who thrive by feeding on their mounting fears.


No Second Lockdown Without A Full Parliamentary Debate

It may come as a surprise to learn that I have never before authored a petition! But I have now.

Please find below the link for a petition entitled, ‘No Second Lockdown Without A Full Parliamentary Debate’

I created this petition because I feel very strongly that the way to fight this virus is not by making people feel constantly afraid. Nor is it achieved by issuing threats. Instead, our politicians need to make a strong case that persuades us. Debating a second lockdown would seem an important step in achieving this.

In my latest blog I tried to communicate how confused I was becoming as I saw a different picture with my own eyes to the one that was being presented by politicians and large sections of the media. Since sharing my blog I have learned how many other people feel the same way.

A full debate in Parliament on the merits of a second lockdown will require our politicians to make a strong case, one that stands up to rigorous analysis, as well as providing the opportunity for MPs to represent the voice of their constituents.

I believe this will help to bring people together, thereby strengthening our collective response to Covid-19.

If you think this debate is important, please sign and share.

Thanks very much


Lost in a Corona Daze

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment I started to question our nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. At the outset, I embraced the collective panic wholeheartedly. On the phone to friends, any attempt to mitigate the abject terror that lay before us was swept aside using examples picked from here and there. If it was pointed out that the virus only mildly affects children, there would be a case someone had seen in the paper of a twelve year-old admitted into intensive care; if it was suggested that people under fifty were not at great risk, there would be the forty-five year old friend-of-a-friend who had died with no knowledge of underlying health conditions; if it was mentioned seasonal flu kills thousands of people every year, a vague but horrifying description of coronavirus symptoms would be embarked upon. I know this because I was the one doing it.

When rumours of school closures began to ripple around friendship groups and respected public figures came out in favour of it, my partner and I joined the parent-powered action to withdraw children from school. When a week later they closed, we were vindicated. The #ToryGenocide trick wasn’t fooling us! Now it was time to stockpile. As the back room filled up with trays of tinned tomatoes and bags of rice, we sought alternative sources of food should supply chains dry up due to casualties and contamination. Hand sanitiser was bought in bulk from Amazon which, if accidentally left behind when embarking on a visit to the shop (in full mask, hood and sunglasses), would induce internal panic. And why wouldn’t it? This thing had come to kill us.

Trudging along deserted footpaths for daily exercise we would occasionally come across another family also with anorak hoods fastened, despite the dry weather. We would pass each other suspiciously, mounting the verge to keep our distance. We cried tears of frustration when our parents resisted the call to shut themselves up in their homes, like bomb shelters, until the attack had passed. “You have to take this seriously” I found myself saying, “before it’s too late!” Whatsapp messages were sent urging able-bodied friends to sign up and help the NHS. If, for some reason they didn’t, eyebrows would be raised. For a while I seriously considered contacting the local factory to ask if I could help build ventilators. A doctor friend told me these were desperately needed. But in the end, I chose to stay at home and look after my young son. We did have to keep the home fires burning too, after all.

And when, with doors locked and delivery slots secured, we realised the gravity of what was actually happening, we thought of our friends with restaurants and shops; new businesses that had opened in a country where people walked the streets freely, enjoyed each other’s company easily, spent money assured it would continue to flow, in spare moments when kids were at school. But we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that The Chancellor would provide financial cushions to soften these blows. And we didn’t have to worry too much. The Governor of the Bank of England had reassured us the economy would bounce back quickly, in the shape of a ‘V’, as it happened, for victory. It would all be over by Easter.

In an attempt to laugh at the situation and dispel some of the fear, I started writing a comedy series reflecting on how absurd my behaviour had become. Partnering up with an old friend, Lucie Capel, we produced ‘Corona Daze’. The six-part series follows an estate agent and working Mum, Nicky Parsons who, like me, began lockdown in abject terror before slowly tuning out the incessant alarm bells and reflecting on whether the damage wrought upon her life and family was really consummate with the scale of the threat.

So when did my doubts set in? The conspiracy theorists got going quite quickly. My partner and I laughed until our eyes watered at interviews with unconvincing ‘Fibre-Network Engineers’ who claimed coronavirus had entered the population through 5G lasers positioned on telecom masts. ‘Hospitals are empty!’ screeched another post from someone, somewhere (my social media intake had gone up quite substantially since actual socialising had ceased). A group of activists had taken it upon themselves to snap photos outside hospitals showing that no one was there. We giggled at the absurdity of that one too. Until a close friend, who needed a plaster cast removed, visited her local community hospital and found she was the only car parked in the car park. Walking into the hospital, she discovered it was empty of patients. This is odd, I thought. Protecting the NHS from scenes of corpses stacked up is one thing, but protecting it from seeing any patients at all felt a little over cautious.

Mentioning this to friends released a host of similar experiences, including visiting the A&E of a massive East London hospital for a fractured finger and emerging, forty-five minutes later having had a scan. That’s strange, we thought, waiting time in that A&E normally takes around six hours. The Nightingale Hospitals had almost been finished by then, seven magnificent edifices built in record time by dedicated construction workers along with our committed armed services. As Prince Charles opened the 4,000 capacity converted Excel Centre in East London via video link, long rows of beds resonant of military hospitals, he prayed it would be used for as short a time, and for as few people, as possible. It seems his prayers were answered. The hospital was closed on 15th May having treated only 54 patients. Soon after that, the Birmingham, Bristol and Harrogate hospitals were closed without taking any patients at all.

By this point, the country had been in a state of emergency for over four weeks, with almost every sector of the economy shut down, freedom of movement largely curtailed and children prevented from going to school. So when it became clear that infections of Covid-19 would not overwhelm the NHS, I began asking myself, why does the lockdown not end? ‘Oh that’s because lockdown has been working’, I was told. Of course it was, how silly of me. But a quiet voice kept nagging. If the lockdown had prevented scenes in Nightingale hospitals to rival those witnessed by their namesake during the war in Crimea, why was the death rate not higher in the fortnight following it?

We knew by that time the virus could take two weeks to present symptoms. If it was nearing dangerous peaks, it would have reached its zenith in the first two weeks of lockdown. And indeed it did. In the 14 days after the country shut down, a total of 6,074 deaths were recorded. In a state of morbid enquiry, I glanced each day at the recorded deaths for NHS England. Somehow these were significantly lower, recording only 754 mortalities in England during that fortnight. Just to put that into context, an average 18,000 people in England die every two weeks. So what was going on? The sad answer came in early May when stories broke across the media revealing the heavy death toll was due to elderly patients being transferred from hospitals into care homes, enabling the virus to spread among the old and vulnerable. By early June, the death rate in care homes had dropped back down to the average. By the end of June, a typical day might see daily deaths nationally stand at less than 100. I felt callous and ashamed when I found myself secretly thinking – surely the figures must be higher than that?

Then came newspaper profiles of the scientist at Imperial College, Neil Ferguson, who had told us half a million people were about to perish. It seems he hadn’t always got these things entirely right. The lines I wrote for Nicky Parsons and her Mum in Corona Daze crudely summed up how I felt at that time:

Nicky: Do you know how many times his predictions have been wrong?? He claimed Bird Flu would kill two hundred million people.

Mum: How many did it kill?

Nicky: 455 – and that’s globally. His Swine Flu predictions were just as bad. Sixty thousand Britons would perish, he said. In the end, it was 283. I mean, every death is a tragedy, don’t get me wrong. But if you’re looking for a forecast into the future, you’d be better off asking Mystic Meg.

Quite soon after that, it transpired Ferguson had allowed his mistress to travel across London in order to visit him after the lockdown had begun – twice. Journalists often point to the Cummings debacle as the moment when the public lost trust in the lockdown strategy, but for me it was this. If somebody really believes that half a million people could die of a virus so deadly that children should be withdrawn from school, how could he put the life of his lover and her children at risk? (He presumably wasn’t quite so worried about the fate of her husband). Was Ferguson sure he was virus-free? Could he be sure his mistress didn’t have underlying health conditions? If he could make these risk assessments, why could we not do the same?

Then came more facts about the virus itself. Initially, we believed those at risk included anyone who had ever used an asthma inhaler or who had lived a remotely dissolute life: taking drugs, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, which covers about 95% of the population under sixty. Over sixty, the risk was even higher. Under ten and the risk may be less – but there was no certainty, so we should still be very much afraid. But afraid of what?

Clicking around YouTube one evening I watched a video purporting to have some ‘Good News!’ about coronavirus. According to the pundit, the Government had declassified Covid-19 from being a high consequence infectious disease because overall mortality rates are low. What?! A random internet loon wasn’t fooling me that easily, I decided to look this up myself. A few clicks later and there it was on the screen in front of me, as clear as day. ‘Status of Covid-19’ the header declared, ‘As of 19th March 2020 , COVID-19 is no longer considered to be high consequence infectious disease (HCID)’. Huh? I looked again at the address bar; yes, it was the government website. I checked the date; published 22nd March 2020 – the day before lockdown began. How is it possible, I asked myself, that Covid-19 could no longer be judged ‘an acute infectious disease’? That did not therefore, require a ‘co-ordinated national response’? Like, for example, a lockdown that, a day later, was imposed on the whole country?!

The tales spun around this piece of information stretched as far as megalomaniac globalists attempting to patent the human race. But in spite of the comic conspiracies, the fact remained: the four nations HCID group, along with the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens, did not consider Covid-19 a high consequence infectious disease. Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation clearly did. ‘Coronavirus is public enemy number one’, WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told a press conference. It is no wonder then, that around this time, the British Government enacted legislation effectively creating a state of emergency across the country. Delving into this topic, I felt like Alice in Wonderland might have done after falling down a rabbit hole and finding herself in a strange world imbued with fantastical occurrences. Whereas we used to have a parliamentary democracy in which big decisions were discussed and debated before they became law, we suddenly now had ‘Super Ministers’ who can swoop in and stop us from doing pretty much anything they choose at any time.

But why should that surprise me? ‘Coronavirus is everybody’s enemy’, the WHO Director General reminds us. So it must be necessary to give Government Ministers the power to declare a “transmission control period” which, despite sounding like an instruction from Scott Tracy in Thunderbirds, actually means that anyone can be detained if suspected of being “potentially infectious” (including children) and forcibly tested in unidentified isolation facilities. After all, a period of uncontrolled transmission would be catastrophic, wouldn’t it?

In episode 5 of Corona Daze, Nicky loses her temper during the Skype conversation with Mum. Her life has deteriorated under lockdown, with the pillars and joists that kept it upright unable to withstand the pressure. Having taken refuge in the shed she rails against the lockdown, citing examples that I drew from my own life, including a family member infected with Covid who reported nothing more serious than ‘a night of the sweats’ and disappointment that he couldn’t taste his artisan beer. He was not the only one. At first startling, it became routine in conversations with friends to discover how many had fallen ill with symptoms that were so similar to Covid-19 that one could not help but deduce they had… Covid-19. The enemy was upon us!

Phone conversations became coronavirus counts: one friend knew nine people who had contracted Covid; another, fifteen. ‘Were they admitted to hospital? I enquired, ‘Or put on a ventilator so they didn’t drown in the pus of their own lungs?’ ‘Don’t think so’, came the answers. That’s a bit weird, I thought, as I continued reading terrifying reports in newspapers and magazines suggesting no one was safe from imminent harm. Is it possible this threat being a little exaggerated?

Meanwhile, whispers of job losses could be seen in small corners of newspapers and heard in private conversations with those brave enough to point out the unintended consequences of the ‘Stay At Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ mantra. Friends on zero hours contracts had been let go with two days notice, others on furlough were concerned their jobs may no longer exist. In Corona Daze, Nicky gets shirty with husband, Simon, a Risk Analyst for an insurance firm, for being on a zoom meeting when she’d like him to answer the front door. She turns back to Mum to complain,

Nicky: (annoyed) Do you know, he’s not even doing any work anymore! All they talk about is how the company is going to survive the lockdown.

Mum: He’s still analysing risk then?

Nicky: Well yes, I suppose that is analysing risk…

Waking up one morning and glancing at my phone, I saw a notification flash up on the screen, ‘No reported case of a child passing coronavirus onto an adult exists’. Hallelujah! I cry. At this point, we were five weeks into lockdown and, for my partner’s twelve year-old, the days were becoming repetitive and dull. School work done remotely is just homework, and we were running out of new places to take our daily exercise. That said, we were grateful she wasn’t still at primary school. Reading a survey of 10,000 parents put together by Oxford University, I discovered that the vast majority of parents with children under 12 reported increased emotional difficulties, behavioural difficulties and attention difficulties because of lockdown. When you spend your early parenting years sticking rigidly to routines or paying dearly for the consequences, it seems obvious young children would struggle to cope with a change of such magnitude.

So the fact that children do not spread the virus is a cause for huge celebration! Fantastic. Children can go back to school for their final term, catch up on the work they have missed, swap lockdown stories, relax back into their routines, and learn from professionals rather than overwrought parents with vacant looks trying desperately to wing it. They can also hug their grandparents now, like the Swiss! I click around Google to find a bit more information. Oh… That’s odd. It seems this game-changing report is not all that newsworthy. Instead the BBC has chosen to focus that day on the UK death toll passing 26,000 cases. Coronavirus, we are told by our national broadcaster, is ‘as deadly as Ebola in hospital’. Our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, warns us the UK is at a ‘dangerous moment’. Although, it seems, not for the nation’s children, which would provide some relief for its citizens, should it be reported beyond a single newspaper.

In the weeks following the report, the prospect of children returning to school, rather than brighten, seemed to diminish. Despite learning that primary schools were reopening in quite a number of countries: Israel, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, Germany etc, our education unions blocked it. I am in favour of unions, so I was interested to see what new evidence had come to light. When UNISON published a statement, in partnership with a host of other unions representing the adults in the education sector, I read it with care. ‘We all want schools to re-open’ began the statement. Well, that’s a good start, I thought.

Reading on, I was quite surprised to discover the 10 tests set by the unions, which the government would need to pass in order to gain support for reopening schools. These included a call for ‘clear scientific published evidence that trends in transmission of Covid-19 will not be adversely impacted’. Had they not read the report? Hacking through the remaining nine tests felt like entering a thick undergrowth in which no path could ever be cleared. Not only would the entire national track and trace system need to be in place before children could return to learning, but every school must prove to the government, unions and employers that it meets the required standards through robust risk assessments. But before this can happen, the standards must be agreed. This would be done by a ‘National Covid-19 Education Taskforce’ comprising the government, unions and ‘other stakeholders’. It is not specified how the decision to appoint a stakeholder would be made, or by whom. Perhaps it may require a further taskforce to decide.

However, once these standards are in place, schools can open, right? Nope. Schools must then show they have considered how they will achieve ‘equitable outcomes’ for the disadvantaged. As the pool of disadvantaged children may have widened quite considerably since children were deprived of the stability of going to school, those who meet this criteria may need to be assessed. However, the additional time could be advantageous, giving plenty of opportunity for the tenth test to be carried out: assessing the impact of reopening schools on all other public services. With all that to do, it seemed unlikely unions would support children returning to education this side of Christmas 2021.

And then came the big revelation that nobody was expecting, least of all me: large numbers of people with coronavirus were asymptomatic.In fact, so many people were asymptomatic that the most common symptoms of Covid-19 were not persistent coughs or high fever, as we had thought, but no symptoms at all. This was great news! Like a Get Out Of Jail Free pass, you could be liberated from the constant terror of contracting the virus because, if you did get it, it could be so mild that you might not even know you had it!

My relief was short-lived. Picking up a copy of National Geographic magazine, esteemed for its long history of factual reporting, I was told that actually, this new information should make me even MORE afraid. Why? Because the ‘disturbing reality’ is that ‘we have little idea who among us is spreading the disease’. I started to look at people around me a little more suspiciously after that. Are they a ‘stealthy spreader?’ I would ask myself. A walking, talking, fully-functioning virus-infector masquerading as the friendly post office clerk? Or my helpful Canadian neighbour? Or – hold on – could The Infector be me? And if the law now states that people who are ‘potentially infectious’ can be detained, am I now a suspect in the battle against ‘public enemy number one’? Inside my body, I could be giving refuge to the adversary – without even knowing it.

I can absolutely see why I need to be more afraid, although less from contracting Covid-19, and more from the newfound powers of the British Government. Because if I did contract Covid-19, and had any symptoms at all, the virus would be very unlikely to kill me. The death rate for my age bracket (not giving that one away) is four in a thousand. The total percentage of deaths from Covid across the population is around 0.063% and the highest proportion of deaths are men aged between 85-89 and women over 90. In Corona Daze, Nicky takes these facts to their logical, if rather brutal, conclusion,

Nicky: (unable to contain her fury) Do you know what is even more shocking?? The average age of the people who die from it – and I’m not joking, Mum – is higher than the average life expectancy! (in full rant) Do you know what that means?! It means most people their age have already died from something else!

I found myself listening to a podcast that encouraged me to check out the statistics on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) website. Ploughing through a spartan web page so dense with data that it resembled Teletext back in the 1980s, I was taken aback to discover that overall death rates in June this year, when the nation was fearing for their very survival, were ‘significantly down’ on the five year average. Meaning that actually, less people in Britain died. I was reminded of the ‘Good News!’ about coronavirus: its declassification from a high consequence infectious disease as mortality rates are low. So why does it matter whether we spread it?

Quite soon after this, I was in conversation with a childhood friend. She contracted coronavirus during her work as a paramedic and it had affected her badly. Three weeks unable to move, chronic muscle ache, breathless after going back and forth from the bathroom. At one point she felt a thrombosis in her shoulder which, after recovery, was told may have been a potentially fatal blood clot. Her age category is below mine, the risk of death two in a thousand. Soon after that, a school friend’s husband died, in his mid-forties, of Covid-19.

After restrictions loosened and garden visits were allowed, I went to see my dad. We sat two metres apart on the lawn and strained to hear each other over the sound of drilling, construction work being exempt from lockdown. I had bought him some bath salts wrapped in a paper bag and left in the hallway for 24 hours to make sure the virus was dead. I had then sanitised my hands before carrying it to and from the car. Dad asked me to leave it on the lawn and he would pick it up when I left. He was taking no chances either. Chatting casually about this and that, I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of sadness at the thought of losing my dad. By this point, he had been confined to the house for over two months, not having left even for daily exercise.  The ornamental front gate had become a working barrier protecting him from danger. At that moment all my doubts disappeared. Overcome with fear, I admonished myself for having even the slightest skepticism. After all, I would shut down the whole world economy and continue lockdown forever if it meant my father stayed alive.

But on departure, a conflict of emotions descended upon me. Reflecting during the drive home, I asked myself what rational response I would give to that observation. Following the train of logic, I start at the beginning. Here is a new virus, one that is highly infectious, nobody has immunity, it kills mainly elderly people, the obese and those with underlying health conditions. Most people with underlying health conditions know they have them and routinely take precautions in their everyday lives, like a friend with leukemia and another with MS. Those who are obese can lower their risk by losing weight. Those over-70 (who may prefer not to be called ‘elderly’) are taking precautions to protect themselves.

In the newly-formed Whatsapp group of families in our road, flurries of messages were exchanged every time someone ventured out to the supermarket. Often requests came from our elderly neighbour; a bag of oranges or a tub of cream cheese left on her doorstep and the doorbell rung. We were all eager to help, glad of being given the opportunity, and we were not the only ones. Throughout Britain, elderly people were being shopped for, food and medicines delivered to their door. We would have continued, except our neighbour didn’t need us anymore. She had decided to shop for herself again taking steps to mitigate the risks.

This leaves people with underlying health conditions they are not aware of, a very small number at great risk. But in the voluminous discussion about the vulnerable, there seemed to be far less mention of children, arguably the most vulnerable of all. In order to protect the elderly, the overweight and the tiny number of those with severe, yet hidden health issues, we withdrew children from school, closed all children’s activities and suspended some of our most fundamental civil rights. As I became more and more frustrated, I eventually found myself thinking: are children simply collateral damage in this war against a low mortality virus?

With 750,00 people signed up as volunteers and billions upon billions of pounds borrowed, could we not have found a way to protect people without causing children harm and pressing the self-destruct button on our economy? With a fraction of the money borrowed, surely every elderly person in the country could have been assigned a dedicated carer, preferably a member of their family, who could be furloughed on full pay for the duration; delivered cordon bleu meals three times a day, entertained by The Royal Shakespear Company on their doorstep, telephoned daily by an army of good Samaritans ready to chat over the latest episode of whichever programmes they have been watching, free BBC licenses. The obese could have been given personal training, dedicated nutritionists and grand firework displays every time they lost a stone. Meanwhile the rest of us would spend time in bed feeling dreadful, or experience no symptoms at all while coronavirus did its work, and the very unlucky, the tiny fraction of those with underlying health conditions they were not aware of, would die. And that could be any of us.

As June rolled into July and the lockdown began to lift, I wrote the last episode of Corona Daze, optimistic that the worst was behind us. Nicky was reunited with Mum, taking her daughters for a socially distanced visit to granny’s garden. By this point, Nicky had lost her job and her husband’s firm was in crisis. This situation felt familiar for many families as, all around us, the consequences of lockdown started trickling through. By early July, Boots had announced it was cutting 4,000 jobs, Pret a Manger closing 30 branches, The National Trust was laying off 1,200 staff, SSP franchised kiosks shedding 5,000 jobs; Casual Dining Group making 1,900 redundancies, Virgin Atlantic cutting 3,500 staff; BA, 12,000; a report by the Creative Industries Federation predicting 400,000 jobs at risk, an Evening Standard investigation finding 50,000 West End jobs may be lost, with the paper itself now struggling to survive.

We took the opportunity to go to Norfolk for a week. Walking through fishing villages and along the beach, we kept a healthy distance from passersby, smothered our hands with sanitiser upon entering shops, followed one way systems in pubs and sat a distance from other diners. I breathed in the clean, salty air and felt sure our nation could heal. Then it was announced facemasks would be compulsory in shops and my morsel of hope was snatched by the gulls. Posting an objection on Facebook, I was castigated for lacking the virtue to make this sacrifice. In a gesture of charity, I was presented with a report by The Royal Society which, I was told, underpinned the government’s policy. Surprisingly, the report gave almost as much space to advising on how to enforce mask-wearing within the British population as it did to analysing the effectiveness of wearing them. Looking up a few of the footnotes, I could see why: the evidence for their usefulness being pretty thin on the ground. But this didn’t stop the authors making a strong case in favour of mandating them.

Despite my uneasiness, we returned home light-headed, almost dizzy with happiness. We couldn’t understand it at first. After all, it was only the Norfolk coast! But while chatting one evening we realised our joyfulness had come from being around other people. Casual conversations in the shop or a smile from a passerby reminded us how love and good humour can overcome suffering. As with so many decisions throughout this crisis, courses of action seem to be plotted against results from polling surveys rather than steered by strong leadership. As it did at the outset, the government seemed again to be reacting to the public’s panic rather than containing it.

I told myself this phase would pass, the government would soon lead us back onto a familiar path. So I was pretty shocked to follow news from Leicester, where a second lockdown had been imposed and, two weeks later, residents had been denied reprieve. The Mayor of Leicester, Peter Soulsby, was incensed. He claimed the government had failed to make the case or provide evidence that it would make any difference. But he was shouting into the void. Super Ministers are not required to busy themselves with such trivialities. A “public health response period” can be called without the need for new legislation, so decisions cannot be scrutinised or rejected by Parliament. We have no power to stop it.

It is no wonder Matt Hancock’s announcement to parliament reads like an entry in the diary of a Marvel Comic superhero. Justifying his decision to withdraw freedom from Leicester’s residents for a further two weeks, Super Hancock reminds us of his determination to ‘fight against this invisible killer’. In doing so, he employs a range of tactics, presumably to keep the enemy guessing. At times he will move ‘swiftly and quietly’ but, when a situation requires it, he will fly in, listen to his team of clinical advisors, consult with local leaders, all of whom agree unanimously with him (presumably the Mayor was not invited to that particular consultation), and Chair a Gold Meeting before invoking his newfound super power. And suddenly, like the Marvel character, Mr Freeze, our Super Minister can suspend a place in time, preventing anyone from leaving or entering any location, close any – or all – public spaces, shut roads and deny people access to transport. Pretty impressive powers for a superhero except that, unfortunately, Mr Freeze was Batman’s arch-nemesis and a villain. In the fortnight leading up to the local lockdown, 14 people died of coronavirus in Leicester. Heartbreaking for their families. In the same period across England an average of 18,000 people passed away, making it 0.07% of the total. If the ONS statistics are anything to go by, it is likely the highest proportion of those were over the age of 80.

Yet the drumbeat for a second wave pounds on. Imperial College scientists create more models showing more huge death rates; doctors and bureaucrats are again screaming about the imminent devastation of the NHS. The enemy may have retreated for a short time but it remains on the horizon, looming, waiting for an opportunity to invade once again. But, as in Leicester, the virus seems to attack a lot more forcefully once a testing centre arrives, like a Trojan Horse, it appears as a gift that spells disaster.

Sitting on the lawn outside our house to commemorate VE Day, we try desperately to enter into the spirit of celebration despite all events being cancelled. Union jack bunting woven carefully around village railings now flutters listlessly. Each household nibbling biscuits in their bubble aimlessly, separated from each other by a fence. We had hoped to honour the 500,000 who gave their lives by experiencing the joy and privilege they fought so hard for us to enjoy: the feeling of being free, moving around as we pleased, talking about any subject that concerns us, feeling companionship that human beings crave and need. But instead we were atomised in our gardens like statues in a dystopian art exhibition.

Remembering those men, the vast majority of whom were in their twenties with their whole lives ahead of them, the Queen reminds us that they died ‘so we could live as free people in a world of free nations’. Seventy-five years later, we are faced with a virus that has killed less young Britons than the fingers on two hands. Yet we are told that, in order to defeat this killer, we must make a sacrifice. But this time the sacrifice is not our lives, it is our freedom.

Please leave comments if you feel you would like to. I wrote this hoping to encourage debate.

To watch comedy series, Corona Daze, click here


Corona Daze

During this time of fear, confusion and uncertainty, my friend Lucie and I couldn’t help seeing the humour in our own reactions, and those of our friends. In this 12min monologue performed by Lucie and written by us both, the character, Nicky, tries to grapple with the big issues we faced in the week before lockdown.

Continue reading


Corona Daze Episode 3

Thankfully, we didn’t have to do too much home-schooling in our household. But reading diary pieces and speaking to friends made me aware of the baptism of fire most parents went through.

I also remember being shocked at the stories I was hearing about people snitching on each other; reading in the papers about the enormous numbers of calls the police had received. Veronika at number eleven is a parody, but the emotions around having a neighbour who is reporting other residents felt worth exploring.

In Episode 3 Nicky gets a rude awakening when she realizes homes schooling is not the breeze she thought it would be. Especially when today’s assignment is 3D modelling and her elder daughter would rather be chatting on House Party than doing school work. After Mum admits she’s lonely, Nicky scours government guidelines for loopholes so she can visit her. But will she be reported by Lime Grove’s resident spy?

To catch up on episode 1 and 2 click here for the Corona Daze playlist:


Corona Daze Episode 4

Nits in lockdown is no fun. I caught them from my son in week one and it drove me almost to despair. In episode 4, we witness the downward spiral in relations between Nicky and her two daughters.

One of the things I enjoyed during lockdown was discovering the products that were sold out, which were often quite surprising. Books of Bird Songs, for example; vitamins; paddling pools and bicycles. Flour was another. Driving miles across London to a basement bike shop in order to buy a bicycle she liked (unavailable online) was one of the first things Lucie did after shops re-opened.

Episode 4 catches Nicky on the hunt for flour, which proves to be harder to find in lockdown than she thought. Battling to keep up with the deluge of deliveries, Nicky is still determined to make it into the Woodpecker Class Newsletter. Unfortunately, this week’s school work was not the piece of cake she imagined… As postage stamps become bargaining chips and fresh tomatoes get harder to swallow, Nicky clings on to the last sheds of control.

To catch up on the first three episodes click here for the Corona Daze playlist:


Corona Daze Episode 5

It is difficult to pin point the exact moment I started questioning our nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Like Nicky, I embraced the collective panic wholeheartedly at first. I had no idea how badly this virus would affect people and worried daily for my parents and my children. So when did my doubts set in?

In this episode, Nicky has reached her nadir. Her life, so meticulously constructed, lies in a heap before her. In a fit of anger at the damage wrought, Nicky rails against the logic and justice of the lockdown. The anecdotal incidents Nicky refers to are real, and the facts are among those I was picking up while trying to keep abreast of new information. However, rather than bringing clarity, I found the picture became increasingly confusing the more I learned about Covid-19.

It was a welcome release writing these frustrations into the words of Nicky Parsons. But, while composing this accompanying blog to you, I felt I needed to unpick my uneasiness further. I wanted to understand better where the confusion lay. I hope to publish this longer piece in the coming weeks.

Following on from Episode 4….

As her world crumbles around her, Nicky retreats to the garden shed.

The battle with her daughter, Flora, has scaled new heights and Nicky has no option but to reluctantly accept defeat.

Meanwhile, Simon has won the battle of the shrubberies, with Nicky’s carefully manicured flowerbeds now hosting a range of root vegetables while a chicken coop dominates her astro-turf.

With her professional life in tatters, and her wardrobe reduced to a pile of washing, Nicky has reached rock bottom.

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