Data shows lockdown deprivation causes domino distress on NI's children

  • Back in early April, in the premature stages of lockdown, BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis opened the programme announcing, “They tell us coronavirus is a great leveller. It’s not. It’s much, much harder if you’re poor.”

    Emerging data from government sources, academics and other public and private bodies is proving this statement to be more and more true, even as we ease out of quarantine.

    Using statistics, research and sources found via The Data Times* – a working-in-progress prototype for community journalists - we delve specifically into how the current pandemic is issuing in a serious mental health epidemic, with particular focus on vulnerable children and families in Northern Ireland, who tend to be from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

    You can read more on how the pandemic has affected children across the Republic of Ireland via the Digital Times here. 

    Wealth divide
    The lockdown measures were implemented across the UK officially on the 23 March, but Northern Ireland had already been informally edging towards total isolation days prior, with the cancellation of St Patrick’s Day parades and schools closing all over the country.

    With the mandatory requirement of protective face masks coming into England in late July, it seems to be only a matter of time (despite debate) until this rule is imposed in NI too.

    With multiple clothing outlets already offering ‘high-end’ masks and various celebrities uploading selfies in Louis Vuitton and other designer coverings, a wealth division is clear and palpable, regardless of the initial echoes of the ‘equality’ coronavirus would entrench us in.

    Mental health variations
    When the Covid-19 virus and the fear it brought with it first swept across the nation, immediate concerns were of course, related to one’s physical health.

    When thoughts of mental health troubles first bubbled, many assumed that those shielding – elderly and vulnerable - would struggle the most, as well as those who lost loved ones to the virus.

    However, as the crisis has steadily ensued over the last five months, what we are now seeing from both qualitative and quantitative data, is that the lockdown period has had a rippling effect in the mental health of various societal groups.

    One in five people within Northern Ireland meet the criteria for Covid-19 related PTSD due to the current pandemic, according to a study by the Stress, Trauma and Research Conditions lab at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).

    It found that within 470 people in NI, one third also met the criteria for anxiety and depression. The team conducted a month-long online study, collecting data from over 2500 people across the UK, and said it is the largest data collection exercise on Covid-19 related mental health in NI to date.

    Professor Cherie Armour who led the research said that “this is understandable since Northern Ireland has previously reported a 25% higher prevalence of mental ill health compared to England and our results have shown those with pre-existing mental health conditions are most at risk.”

    Domino effect on children
    With the hardships that many adults have had to face as a result of Covid-19, comes after-effects upon their children. This has been reflected in recent data from Childline, which shows an increase of more than 25% in young children in Northern Ireland getting in touch about their emotional wellbeing during lockdown.

    The NSPCC-run phone helpline has carried out 373 counselling sessions with NI children about their mental health, which is a monthly average of 124 sessions. This is compared with 99 prior to lockdown.

    Mairead Monds, head of Childline Belfast, said: “There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has had a direct impact on the mental health of many of our children and young people in Northern Ireland.

    “It is vital that Childline can continue to be there to help support young people to cope and recover from the aftermath of this crisis. We also need to see this backed up by an ambitious recovery plan that ensures children can access the vital services they need to begin to move forwards.”

    In June, a month before this data was released, the NSPCC announced it would provide hundreds of Deliveroo riders with free training to help them recognise children at risk of abuse and neglect.

    The food delivery service app is also promoting the charity’s helpline number on riders’ delivery bags. Earlier in the year, a rider contacted the NSPCC after becoming worried for a child’s welfare and action was consequently took to ensure the child’s safety, but the partnership was also developed in part due to an NSPCC report named ‘Isolated and Struggling’.

    Its data and evidence from academics, charities and frontline professionals revealed various ways in which lockdown – albeit easing gradually – has increased the risk of child abuse in the UK. These involve a reduction in normal protective services, an increase in young people’s vulnerability and an increase in stressors to parents and caregivers.

    The latter issue is expectedly high as coronavirus has caused endless stressors to adults –those who know loved ones with the virus, are afraid of loved ones catching Covid-19 or catching it themselves, or most commonly, those who have been furloughed or lost their job.

    Data from the Department for Communities reported that more than 33,000 people from 16 to 30 March had claimed Universal Credit: ten times the normal rate. New figures from HMRC also shows that the number of jobs impacted by coronavirus in Northern Ireland climbed to 316,200 at the end of June, with over 240,000 people now furloughed.

    Digital Divide
    As well as facing more vulnerabilities by constantly being at home, young people have had to attend virtual classes in the absence of school, with some hybrid variation of this education model between in-school and remote learning expected to continue when the new year starts again in September.

    When teachers prepared Google classrooms and digital classes back in March, one aspect many educators did not take into consideration was the possibility that many children could not afford the equipment needed for this ‘new normal’ way of learning – and that’s without the assumption that all children would have parents or caregivers free or willing to help them with home-schooling.

    Data from the ONS in 2019 detailed that despite how the number of people who can’t or don’t use the internet has declined in general since 2012, Northern Ireland continues to have the highest proportion of non-internet users across the UK, at 14.2%.

    A report released at the end of June by the UK Education and Training Inspectorate suggested as many as half of the pupils in some post-primary schools didn't take part on the remote learning programmes offered by the school.

    Some parents were also worried about the amount of screen time their children were having and requested hard copies of schoolwork instead.

    Those in more rural areas struggled with internet connectivity and again, the lack of access to laptops and broadband due to lower socio-economic family status was mentioned in the data.

    The Department of Education has been working with BT and the Education Authority in NI to provide free WiFi, mobile connectivity and the lend of digital devices to children and young people who may not have had access to such technology during lockdown.

    The Education Authority’s data disclosed that to the end of June 2020, 9003 devices have been requested as part of that process and the initiative will continue into the new school year, with schools also being able to request devices.

    The British Red Cross (BRC) charity had also been working with the Education Authority and multiple community and voluntary groups in Northern Ireland to combat the issue of ‘technology poverty’, with BRC emphasising that children in asylum accommodation are particularly burdened.

    A spokesperson for BRC said that school and education “is the main way for children in asylum support to integrate with local communities. Not only does Covid-19 cut them off from their immediate neighbours, they are cut off from their school friends where they get the opportunity to develop their English and engage with the wider community.”

    The spokesperson added that presently there are about 160 affected households containing both primary and secondary school children.

    Ann Marie White, refugee support operation manager for the organisation welcomed the NI Eduction Minister’s funding for disadvantaged children, but said “there is still the question of all those not in full time education- families or singles living in asylum accommodation without devices or broadband and this in turn impacts mental health and wellbeing.”

    She added that “this may be an interesting area to explore although data on this is not routinely collated” by the BRC.

    Domestic abuse and children in care on the rise
    Recent data released by the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) has indicated that domestic abuse incidents have risen significantly since lockdown, with weekly trends from Wednesday 4 March - 30 June 2020 compared with the same time period in 2019.

    The PSNI announced that they would be releasing weekly management information on domestic abuse calls received since lockdown measures were introduced on 23 March.

    Based on the 12 months from March 2019 to February of this year, the weekly average number of domestic abuse calls received by police in NI is 570.

    In the week of 24 - 30 June 2020, the number of domestic abuse calls was 568, which is 125 lower than the same week in 2019 when 693 domestic abuse calls were received.

    While the latest weekly total has fallen slightly below the weekly average, the PSNI predicted that it is likely that the level of 568 will increase to higher than this. The report said that “levels for the most recent time period tend to revise upwards as records are completed.”

    The Department of Health’s latest data shows that as of Monday 18 May 2020, there were 2,361 children on the Child Protection Register and 3,397 children in care in Northern Ireland. This is compared with previous stats that show as of March 2018, 3,109 children were in the care of local health trusts.

    At the time the 2018 figures were released in February 2019, it was the highest number of children living in care in NI since records began. The updated facts show a steady but worrying increase.

    The NI Executive has appeared to take notice of this incline, which has sharply risen during lockdown, as on 6 July 2020, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon and Justice Minister Naomi Long announced free public transport travel for those fleeing domestic abuse, which would also be made available for victims’ children.

    This support is available in cases where refuge or emergency accommodation has been arranged through the 24hr Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive or Women’s Aid.

    Future ramifications
    Although the short-term effects of Covid-19 are rife and clear to see, with economic analyses being reported almost every day in the media, the long-term impact is less visible, but just as downtrodden.

    Young people are predicted to be the worst hit financially. BBC analysis of official figures suggest the number of people aged 18-24 claiming Universal Credit or Jobseeker's Allowance doubled in the UK in the last three months.

    More than one in three people in this age bracket is also earning less than before the outbreak, research by the Resolution Foundation claims. The same data suggests younger workers risk their pay being affected for years, which again does not bode well for Northern Ireland’s teenagers of today.

    It appears the NI Executive has taken note of potential negative consequences and is preparing in some ways to mitigate the outcome; the Department of Health for example has modified child care regulations in light of Covid, and Health Minister Robin Swann has recently committed to a full consultation on Minimum Unit Pricing for Alcohol, saying “the impact of alcohol misuse is being felt by too many families and communities across Northern Ireland on a daily basis.”

    Only time will tell if the continued measures are enough, and the picture will become clearer with the continued release and analysis of more data.

    *The Data Times
    This article was written using information, data sets, research and article links hosted on The Data Times, a new platform for journalists and researchers to share and collaborate on open data. The Data Times is developed by Flax & Teal, an open-source development company in Belfast. The Data Times is currently in the prototype stage. You can read more here.

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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