Before the first lockdown even began, there was significant concern around the mental health and well-being of our young people – something which was being impacted by the high levels of child poverty and deprivation in many parts of Ireland.

Recent official figures show that, in the Republic of Ireland, around one-fifth of children and young people – approximately 230,000 – were classed as living in poverty, with the same percentage of children and young people – numbering around 92,000 – in a similar position in Northern Ireland. And the social and economic turmoil caused by the Covid-19 crisis will impact this cohort further.

What lockdown has done is essentially deprive thousands of children and young people of those formative building blocks which are so crucial to their development and future life opportunities. Education is, of course, primary among these.

So many children who were already struggling in the classroom have found themselves set back immeasurably by not having access to appropriate teaching when schools have to shut, or even having access to the technology required to keep up to date with online learning (which is in itself no substitute for face-to-face interaction).

And, as we have seen with the scrapping of A-Levels/GCSE's and Leaving Certificate exams for older children, and the confusion over the transfer test for Primary age children in Northern Ireland, the impact can often be profound on their self confidence and esteem. We cannot forget that, for many, school is a safe place.

Student drawing with pencil on the notebook.

But the deprivation wreaked by the pandemic goes even deeper in the lives of our young people. In addition to the love, stability and support a child needs at home, a young person’s character, selfesteem and emotional intelligence, are often beneficiaries of those other activities – the sports clubs, music groups, hobbies and pastimes, day trips and exposure to other cultures and ways of life, which develop them as individuals.

Since the first days of lockdown, our frontline staff have been coming up with innovative ways to engage with the young people we support. From online working sessions and cookery challenges, to interactive dog walks and sporting challenges, our colleagues have gone the extra mile for the people they are supporting. Never has our ethos of never walking away been more evident. It hasn’t always been easy, and not every young person has felt able to engage with us in this way.

Nevertheless, we will continue to innovate and advocate for our young people, to have better access to whatever they need to keep active, engaged and healthy. At review meetings with commissioners they have acknowledged the work that Extern staff are continuing to deliver during lockdown. For young people and families who normally experience behavioural and relationship issues in the home, the lockdown has most certainly added to the stress and challenge of this.

In Extern, we know only too well the harm caused to young people living in unstable and unsupportive home environments. We always do our utmost to ensure that young people are able to access safe and secure spaces, and have ensured that we continue delivering services at the point of need during lockdown, as well as avail of other supports.

As we have seen across the island of Ireland, many young people – with little to do – can also easily become prey to sinister figures in our communities. Their need for attention and companionship, or for some kind of income, can see them recruited to assist in the work of gangmasters, whose cynicism knows no bounds in how far they will exploit the young.

There are, of course, no easy answers to any of the issues thrown up by this crisis, and politicians – while ripe for criticism – have an unenviable dilemma to solve over balancing the need to protect the most vulnerable, while ensuring that economic hardship does not become an even bigger problem further down the line.

Like poverty, like abuse, like neglect, the lockdown is an issue which is stealing quietly from our children. And it is up to us – and other organisations in the community and voluntary sector – to make sure their voices are heard at the highest level.

Back view portrait of teenage girl painting picture in art class with group of children

To this end, we have made sure that we are front and centre when it comes to advising of our experience on the ground and seeking change through policy and practice. Extern were pleased to be part of the National Children’s Bureau’s campaign, entitled A Vision for Recovery in Northern Ireland, which is calling upon the Northern Ireland Executive “to set out a new vision of childhood to support children, young people and their families to recover fully from the impact of Covid-19”.

In Extern Ireland too, we have continued to liaise closely with our commissioners to ensure that we are delivering our services to the high level they know they can expect from Extern.


For details of the National Children’s Bureau campaign, visit www.ncb.org.uk/what-we-do/influencing-policy/reports-andbriefings/vision-recovery