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Health inequalities: Children

Explore case studies from councils looking at the impact of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis on children.

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The pandemic and now the cost of living crisis have combined to have a devastating impact on the health and welfare of children, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. And, of course, the risk is that it could get worse before it gets better.

Many more families have been tipped into poverty or are experiencing severe economic hardship for the first time. It is leading to food insecurity, low wages, poor housing and not enough money for essentials like clothing or heating.

This threatens to have a lasting impact on health inequalities. The number of children not in school, levels physical activity, diet and mental health have all worsened.

It is presenting a huge challenge to councils and their partners. Public health teams and children’s services are taking the lead though, setting up food clubs and providing welfare support often in partnership with the voluntary sector. Work is also under way with schools and the youth justice system to intervene early when problems arise.

Meanwhile, many of the lifestyle programmes that had either to be adapted to be run online or even curtailed altogether during the pandemic are back up and running in-person. But they are having to play catch up because of the legacy of the lockdowns and their impact on children and young people.

There are, however, some great examples of the good work being done in the suite of case studies below. They include Bradford’s oral health improvement team which has expanded its range of support as COVID-19 restrictions have lifted.

But as well as commissioning services, local government has a key role in bringing different partners together. Nowhere is that clearer than in Westminster where the council is working with the local NHS, voluntary sector, schools and other statutory services to support the mental and emotional health of children and young people.

What all the good practice examples show is that supporting families is complex and multi-pronged. From birth to adolescence, a wide range of problems are being encountered. Tackling them is not going to be easy, but it will be essential if the health and wellbeing of a generation of children and young people is to be protected.

Key statistics

  • One in four children are living with obesity by the end of primary school, up from 1 in 5 before the pandemic (NHS Digital)
  • A child living in the most deprived area is almost twice as likely to be living with obesity than a child living in the least deprived area
  • One in six young people have a probable mental health disorder, up from 1 in 9 in 2017 (NHS Digital)
  • Over 2.6 million children live in households that have experienced food insecurity in the past month (Food Foundation)
  • One in four children have tooth decay by the age of five (PHE)
  • 122,000 children estimated to be missing at least half of school (Children’s Commissioner for England).