Youth voice on Covid – “Talk with us not about us”

The government’s daily briefing is now taking questions from the public, however, the website link informs anyone under 18 that “you cannot ask a question...because you’re not old enough”.

I was a bit surprised at this. Whether it’s a data protection issue or whether it’s too tricky to ensure parental permissions, the lack of imagination in providing an opportunity for children and young people to be recognised and heard by the media, decision-makers and the public at large, is alarming. We are ALL in this together and every voice counts.

On 14 April, in response to a daily briefing question from Times journalist Francis Elliot, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, did send a message to children and young people, paying a tribute to them for “doing the best they can” under lockdown, and saying “thank you” to those volunteering. From an economic perspective he reassured young people that “we are all in this together” and “it is our job to provide opportunities and hope for everyone in the future”, assuring them that he would be asking “what can we do to turbo-charge” plans going forward. We look forward to hearing what the answers will be, and perhaps giving children and young people themselves, the opportunity to put that, and other questions, to the Chancellor, or the Prime Minister, in person.

There are alternatives to the pre-recorded public questions in the current format, such as the special press conferences for children and young people that have been hosted in Canada, Australia, Norway and Sweden. Finland followed an identical format to the UK’s Q&A, when the Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Education and Interior Minister, (all aged under-35 by the way!) took questions from children by live-link. I’m also aware Scotland and Wales have hosted Zoom questions for children and young people, the Welsh example, notably from older teenagers.

Children and young people are not too young to support lockdown and adjust to home schooling. They are not too young to miss their extended family and friends, feel lonely or worry about the future. They are not too young to struggle with mental health challenges. They are also not too young to applaud the NHS, volunteer and fundraise. A few are recognised, like Kia Tobin (17) who moved into her local care home to help look after residents, featured on Good Morning Britain for giving a photo-pillow to war-veteran Ken Benbow of his wife, but few are given mainstream recognition like this, and fewer the same opportunity to articulate their hopes, fears and questions publicly so that decision-makers, politicians and advisers ‘talk with us, not about us’, so that the media reports it.

Many charities and third sector organisations have provided a platform within communities. Youth services recognise just how important it is to talk and be heard and many have been playing a crucial role in giving advice and information direct and peer to peer. Others have been advocating and campaigning on their behalf – notably the children’s commissioners – especially recognising those in poverty or vulnerable to abuse.

However, now that we are entering a new debate about the exit strategy and restart, we must acknowledge that young people should be included in the conversation. They have been disproportionately impacted by lockdown with many not coping as well as other age groups. Going forward they will carry the economic and psychological consequences. Many young adults are already furloughed or laid off from work. They do have leaders, young CEOs, young trustees, campaigners and representatives who could and should be part of dialogue.

One of the key challenges in bringing young people ‘to the table’ is the lack of a clear point of focus in government who would listen. It would be a welcome change to at least have the Secretary of State for Education and the children’s minister in a special briefing for younger children. Many aged 16 plus have a different agenda encompassing housing, mental health, training and jobs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if one of the outcomes post-covid was the overdue appointment of a Minister for Children and Young People in Cabinet?

My favourite example of media reporting so far was the BBC’s Mark Austin featuring interviews on 1 May, via Zoom and in person, with 18-24 year olds on the six and 10 o’clock news bulletins. He reported on a survey that indicated this age group was not coping as well as others and highlighting some of those issues. Perhaps we will see some more reporters following suit, building momentum with allies from the youth sector, to call for a platform and opportunities for children to be heard, their questions answered. In the meantime, perhaps one journalist on the daily press conference will read out a question on their behalf – such the one that Alicia Jones, (Member of the Youth Parliament for Thurrock and #iwill Ambassador) wanted to put to government on what support can be offered to young carers in lockdown. Her tweet back to government was “I’m too young to ask a question – very silly! This pandemic is going to affect our countries’ young people! So let them ask you questions about the future”.

If you are old enough to care, you are old enough to be heard.

James Cathcart, director Young Voices Heard @YVH_YouthVoice

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