The pandemic has thrown up problems that few people in the UK have had to deal with before. But very few of the issues Jack Reynolds has found himself facing in his work with the education charity Football Beyond Borders over the past year are new. In fact, he said, one of the most striking features of the Covid-19 pandemic was the light it had shone on pre-existing inequalities.
It had hit the UK’s poorest communities hardest because the system in which they were living left them the least able to cope, he said, as a report urged the UK to do whatever it takes to tackle the inequalities that have undermined health and led to the highest death rates from Covid in Europe.
Young people who were struggling because they had relatively poor access to education before the pandemic sometimes had almost none now, said Reynolds, whose organisation uses football as an engagement tool to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Households where several generations are living under one roof have found it impossible to reconcile the need to protect the older ones with the need to get children into the classroom. And, as the pandemic hits the poorer communities harder, their mental health and emotional burden can be greater.
Reynolds cited the example of one 13-year-old boy his organisation had been working with. “He’s on the top bunk and he’s got his three-year-old and six-year-old brother who share the bunk below.
“His school has been off a load this year because of teachers’ Covid rates, someone getting a positive test in his year or his brother getting Covid symptoms. He’s trying to work in a room [where he is] on top of them.”
Another 13-year-old Reynolds has worked with has struggled to concentrate and learn, as he often has to get what sleep he can on the floor or the sofa at home.
He has a bed but his family’s circumstances mean he has to share a room with an older brother who is unable to leave the house and whose partner periodically comes to stay.
Reynolds said children from poorer backgrounds were more likely to be living with their elderly relatives, meaning they sometimes had to effectively shield with them, rather than taking the risk of becoming infected at school and then bringing the virus home.
And he added that the mental stress many people were feeling could hit poorer communities harder, citing the example of one child who was already missing a day of school a week on average before the pandemic. “He’s now been pulled out to be home-schooled because [his mother] doesn’t think it’s safe for him to be in school any more.”
Reynolds said: “I think this link between economic inequalities and those emotional and mental health difficulties means that, more often than not, those young people with anxiety who have grown up in low-income households are now being seen pulled out of school ever more frequently.”