Coronavirus: campaigners warn on capacity of children’s charities

Amid the response to the Covid-19 crisis, third sector leaders have called on the government to prioritise economic assistance for children’s charities so they can meet the rising support needs of vulnerable groups.

As children display rainbows to raise community spirits, professionals have called on the state to do more to support vulnerable families. Picture: Ciaran, aged 11, from Surrey
As children display rainbows to raise community spirits, professionals have called on the state to do more to support vulnerable families. Picture: Ciaran, aged 11, from Surrey

As the number of people contracting Covid-19 in the UK rises over the coming weeks, it is likely that children’s social care and welfare services will be stretched like never before – public health experts predict that up to 25 per cent of the workforce could be unable to work due to sickness or having to self-isolate at the peak of the outbreak.

In addition to meeting the existing needs of vulnerable children and young people, research by Action for Children has highlighted how the economic impact of the crisis could tip many families already existing on the breadline over the edge.

The charity says its frontline workers have been “overwhelmed by the sheer desperation of frightened families”, many of whom are scared they will be unable to properly feed children.

More than four million children were living in poverty in 2017/18, and the charity warns that the impending economic and health crisis “is set to force even more families to choose between feeding their children and paying bills”.

Telephone interviews with workers representing 60 frontline services – including children’s centres, services for disabled children and young carers – found that families are most worried about not being able to afford food, followed by utility bills and nappies. Other concerns included access to baby formula and being able to pay the rent if they were unable to work.

Following a commitment from the government, many schools – closed to all but children of keyworkers – continue to provide daily free meals for children in receipt of the pupil premium.

However, Action for Children and 10 other children’s charities have called for the state to do more to support the health and wellbeing needs of disadvantaged families during the crisis.

In a joint statement, charities backed the emergency legislation introduced to minimise the spread of the virus, the charities urge the government to implement it “in a way that reduces the unprecedented strains on families, which could compromise the welfare and wellbeing of children, and ensures that no child is left at risk”.

Increase benefits

Children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield has added her voice to the calls for action, urging ministers to increase child benefit in recognition of the additional financial costs associated with caring for children during the outbreak.

The emergency legislation enables local authorities to prioritise resources if demand for services spikes and workforce numbers plummet. The government has insisted that emergency measures will only be applied if required (see below).

In a letter to social care organisations, Department of Health and Social Care director general of prevention, community and social care Jonathan Marron said: “We need to prepare for the possibility that during the peak of an epidemic, a greater number of people will need social care and many staff may be unavailable due to illness or the need to care for loved ones.

“This could mean that you need to focus your resources on ensuring the most serious and urgent care needs are met, and defer meeting some less acute needs.”

Campaigners have questioned its emphasis. Kathy Evans, chief executive of third sector umbrella body Children England, says priority must be given to providing councils and children’s charities with whatever funding is needed to meet rising demand.

Cost of austerity

In its briefing on the impact of coronavirus, Children England highlights how the voluntary sector provides many essential services on behalf of local authorities “without which many of their statutory needs and rights would not be met”. However, it says a decade of austerity has left both councils and children’s charities without adequate funding to meet existing needs and insufficient reserves to call on in a crisis.

“With so many life-critical issues for councils to worry about in the protection and care of children, families and communities at this time, sufficiency of money should not be one of them,” the briefing states.

It has set out a series of urgent actions needed to alleviate the pressures facing children’s charities, including:

An immediate and nationwide shift from 1 April to payment of all social care suppliers by quarterly grants in advance (rather than individual fees in arrears).

A very strong message and action to enforce prompt payment of invoices.

An availability of bridging funds to prevent immediate closure risks or sudden reductions in service capacity.

Flexibility from government contract managers in how targets and compliance are applied to providers delivering payment-by-results and outcomes-based contracts.

Children England’s concerns about the health of the charity sector are borne out by latest research from think-tank NPC. Its survey of 300 charities assessed the sector’s financial resilience and its ability to react and use its skills to tackle the crisis. It found that six out of 10 charities delivering public services cross subsidise that contract with money from other sources such as fundraising.

However, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has calculated that the charity sector could lose £4bn in fundraising, trading and investment income over the next 12 weeks as a result of the crisis, which NPC says will result in charities being unable to afford to cross subsidise contracts increasing the risk that services fail.

Extra funds needed

NPC chief executive Dan Corry says: “Charities are mobilising to help thousands of people across the country, but they are also crying out for more help and support. Their income is collapsing just as people’s need to use them starts to grow. Our research reveals some underlying problems in the sector which the crisis will undoubtedly exacerbate.

“The response from policymakers and the sector to the crisis needs to take these pre-existing weaknesses into account, and ensure issues like the lack of core funding, the weaknesses on using digital technology and the cross subsidy of contracts are not overlooked, or we could see charities fail and thousands of vulnerable people put at risk.”

For example, in the children’s charity sector, The Children’s Society’s 106 high street shops made £11.2m in 2018/19, while Barnardo’s 705 retail shops made a net profit of £15.8m in 2018/19, according to its latest annual report.

Action for Children has launched an appeal asking the public for more donations to meet the rising needs of vulnerable families, which has so far raised more than £50,000, and has other plans in place to adapt services to the evolving crisis (see below).

The entire children’s sector is working flat out to implement measures to aid the fight against Covid-19 – from council staff being deployed to support foodbanks to Ofsted scrapping routine inspections; and from the Local Government Association ramping up efforts to recruit lapsed and retired social workers to the Department for Education fast-tracking criminal records checks for trainee social workers.

Children’s charities will be a vital cog in the collective response, but need policymakers’ support to ensure they can contribute to their full potential.


By Nick Jones, managing director, fundraising, policyand communications, Action for Children

Most of our services currently remain open, but we’re keeping this under constant review in light of public health guidance. Some services have moved provision of support online to help ensure children and families can receive help – and more work on this front is planned.

Our children’s centres remain open as community hubs where possible – for instance, midwives are still holding clinics in some bases and some supervised contacts are still going ahead. In light of the new measures introduced by the Prime Minister, however, we’re currently reviewing these plans.

Our residential homes and supported living services – all staffed by key workers – are operating as normal, again under public health guidance, although we are reviewing some short breaks services for disabled children to ensure social distancing rules are followed for those children.

Most of our support staff are working from home, as are frontline staff who fall into vulnerable categories. Only limited numbers of staff are working together, and they are operating strict social distancing measures.

For a number of our services, we are moving to a digital offering and we are going to launch a new website where parents can go to find support.

For families we know are struggling, we’ve launched an emergency coronavirus appeal to help them stay afloat. This will support families to cover the cost of basic essentials such as food, nappies, cleaning products, and gas and electricity – and which has already raised over £50,000.

Like other charities, we’ve had to cancel or postpone a number of fundraising events and activities, but at the moment it’s just too early to say what the long-term impact will be. We have business continuity plans in place aimed at keeping as many services as possible running throughout the crisis and these are being updated on a daily basis. The health and safety of our children, families and staff is paramount and the situation is constantly changing.


If the measures included in the emergency legislation are activated, there could be a number of changes to local authority duties including:

  • No longer required to carry out assessments, including financial assessments of disabled young people and looked-after young people transitioning to adult social care services. The same issue would apply to young carers deemed to be in need of care or support.
  • No longer required to assess a child’s needs where it appears they will require care and support after the age of 18 and assess a carer’s needs where it appears they will need support after a child turns 18.
  • Allows the government to direct a local authority to follow new guidance in relation to Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 which relates to services for children in need and their families, including child protection, children in care, young carers and all aspects of support to disabled children and their families.
  • Statutory duties applied to residential special schools that are classed as residential childcare providers could be relaxed, removed and modified.
  • Remove rules ensuring children are placed in schools named on an education, health and care plan.

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