Evidence grows of lockdown harm to the young. But we act as if nothing happened | Martha Gill

At a university reunion recently, my friends and I cornered the dean in charge of pastoral care and tried to make him tell us how much cooler we had been than students these days. We had heard they had no sex, did no drugs, never went out, spent all day in the library and all night applying for internships with accountancy firms. We must have been so difficult to control, we said, in a smug, self-satisfied way. Life must be easier for him now.

“Actually, you were all quite sweet,” he said crushingly. It was the new crop of first years that were the real challenge. In fact, they were tougher to manage than any group he had come across before; it started with horrendous bullying and got worse from there. The trouble was, he said, they were immature: he was having to treat them more like 16-year-olds than the 18- and 19-year-olds they were.

And the reason was obvious. They had missed a key stage of development – the spurt of maturity that comes in sixth form. Instead of socialising with their peers, they had been often shut up at home.

What damage, exactly, have two years of intermittent lockdown done to the young? We don’t yet have the full picture, but increasingly to anecdote (a lecturer friend tells me his third years are less confident and less academically advanced than former years) we can now add data. Sats results are one of the more reliable indicators of how a group is doing and on Tuesday came a striking statistic. The proportion of 11-year-olds hitting expected standards in reading, writing and maths in England had slumped to 59% in 2022, compared with 65% in 2019. That’s a big dip.

Then there are the very young. During the pandemic, parents spoke heartbreakingly of having to tell toddlers to stay away from others and not to hug their friends. In May, research published by the Education Endowment Foundation claimed that lockdown had affected England’s youngest children worst of all. Four- and five-year-olds were starting school far behind, biting and hitting, overwhelmed around large groups of other children and unable to settle and learn.

It came of necessity, perhaps, but we need to admit it. From 2020 to 2021, we conducted a mass experiment on the young. In recent history, there is perhaps just one comparison point: evacuation during the Second World War. Only it’s the opposite experiment. In 1939, children were sent away from their parents. In the past two years, they have been shut up with them.

Colin Blakemore died last week. The feted neurobiologist is remembered in particular for his work on the importance of “critical periods” in development. If a child has faulty vision during a critical period after birth, he found, the brain will never develop the ability to see properly, even if eye problems are then fixed. That theme echoes through developmental science. The younger you are, the more it matters what happens to you.

When former evacuees were in their 60s and 70s, there was a study on their mental health. Those who had been youngest when they were sent away (aged four to six, for example) suffered the worst effects. Will today’s four- to six-year-olds still have problems when they are 70? We need to raise the possibility that they will.

In the 1990s, scientists at the University of Wisconsin did some interesting experiments on baby monkeys. One group was separated from their mothers at birth and raised for five months in a “nursery” of other baby monkeys. (We could perhaps call this the “evacuee” group.) The other set got to stay with their mothers, but each mother-baby pair was isolated. This “lockdown” group saw no other monkeys for five months.

At the end of the period, the researchers found something interesting (although the study was perhaps too small to be definitive). The motherless evacuee baby monkeys fared no worse than the lockdown ones, who only had access to their mothers. They had similar-size behavioural problems. The evacuee monkeys were too hyperactive, but the lockdown monkeys were exceptionally clingy and had delayed social development.

It’s odd, but the national conversation seems to have largely moved on from worrying about the effects of lockdown on the young. Perhaps we don’t want to have to think about it. At the height of the pandemic, it was a national talking point.

Now, it is rarely mentioned, despite a clear lack of government action on the matter. Last month, the education recovery commissioner for England resigned over a dearth of “credible” catch-up funding. A thinktank calculated the government’s latest budget commitment means we will spend £310 for every schoolchild, compared with £1,600 in America and £2,500 in the Netherlands.

Or perhaps we have forgotten. Lockdown Britain had all the aesthetics of fictional big-state dystopias – the empty city squares, the mass-testing centres, the tape around park benches, the twitching curtains of neighbours who would love the chance to report you to the police. It was easy to see then that something bad and lasting might be happening to us all. But the unworldly, futuristic atmosphere disappeared as infections cleared up – and life has mostly snapped back to normal.

But we have to remember what we did. Keeping a generation of children away from their classrooms and friends felt unnatural and harmful, because it was unnatural and harmful. We should at least be collecting far more data on the matter than we seem to be doing. We have, after all, done the experiment. Now we must bother with the results.

Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent

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