Horrific rise in cases of baby abuse is the hidden cost of lockdown that we simply cannot ignore
New figures show injuries to infants because of abuse or neglect have increased dramatically during the pandemic. As England enters a second lockdown, this is a stark reminder that society’s most vulnerable are being hit hardest.
There is nothing more heartbreaking in our society than the death of an infant by abuse. And yet the incidence of this, both deliberate and accidental, is on the increase in England, a direct result of the terrible impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent double lockdowns on vulnerable families.
While Chancellor Rishi Sunak paints a picture with the government’s furlough scheme of households where reliably industrious parents are managing to work from home, attend Zoom conferences, cook, clean, referee disputes between bickering and sometimes bored offspring and generally enjoy a happy life, the reality for some could not be more different. Lockdown becomes a living hell for those families already in difficulty.
With many of the most vulnerable families bearing the worst of the restrictions on our freedom of movement and the economy, there has been an alarming spike in the number of babies in England that have suffered serious injuries as a result of abuse or neglect during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, told a National Children and Adults Services Conference that number was up by a fifth on the same period last year, with local authorities reporting more than 300 injuries and deaths involving children between April and October this year. Ofsted is notified of such incidents as a matter of course in England.
Of that number, around 120 were children under the age of one; 64 of those had suffered “non-accidental” injuries. “And sadly, eight died as a result,” Ms Spielman said. “It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
That should stop us in our tracks. Because for troubled families on the breadline, some with parents who are maybe young and inexperienced or with mental health issues – lacking any support because home-visits are not permitted – the added pressure of the pandemic has created unbearable tension. The strains of job loss, money problems, isolation and having the entire family cooped up together 24/7 are just too much for some.
It makes the middle classes who moan about John Lewis being closed, not being able to go on holiday abroad and the inconvenience of shuttered restaurants suddenly seem incredibly selfish. Because elsewhere, struggling parents are drinking so much in their fight to cope that they pass out and inadvertently smother their babies while sharing a bed or a sofa with them.
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These are not the jolly joggers in their lurid leggings and pricey ear buds, trying to keep fit in the face of gym closures. Or the millions who enjoyed cut-price pub grub such as lobster and fries for a tenner during the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Or even the relatively lucky workers who enjoy the salary security of the extended furlough scheme while sitting at home in the warmth watching Netflix.
These are the vulnerable, desperate families most of us never see. Where a good day is arriving at the food bank and finding it hasn’t yet been cleared out.
In shining a light on the uptick in the number of these horribly tragic deaths, Ms Spielman alerted all those who deal with children, from school and nursery staff to midwives, GPs and health visitors, to keep a close eye out for vulnerable children as the second lockdown bites.
She commended the government’s move to keep schools open, as reports of abuse and neglect had tailed off when children were no longer visible in the first lockdown. But she warned, “Continuing restrictions may be hampering face-to-face visits. While these children are out of sight, they should never be out of mind.”
The shocking truth about the rise in infant injury and death reveals a cost of Covid-19 and the lockdown of which we would largely have been oblivious. And while business leaders and airlines moan about the impact of the pandemic on their efforts to make money, they should acknowledge that the lives of babies never appear on their profit and loss spreadsheets.
When the government finally takes its foot off the pandemic brake, as infection rates tail off or a vaccine is found, and most of us emerge from our homes to return to work, public transport and the pub, looking for a life something like normal, we need to consider that this will never be possible for everyone.
Because when these times have passed, some parents will have paid a terrible price for the government’s lockdown that will haunt them forever… the tragic but preventable death of their baby.
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