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Open our schools or face a national disaster, urges mental health expert

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Siobhan O’Neill

Siobhan O’Neill

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

PA

Siobhan O’Neill

A Northern Ireland mental health expert has added her name to an open letter describing delays in returning children to school as a "national disaster".

Siobhan O'Neill, Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University, is one of 120 UK experts to sign the letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, which urges him to open schools as soon as possible.

Prof O'Neill has said she recognises the potential for Covid-19 to spread if children return to school.

However, she said the lockdown is likely to have a lifelong impact on some of the most vulnerable children across Northern Ireland.

"We need to look at carrying out more research on the spread of Covid-19 among children and how likely it is that they will bring the virus home to family members," she said.

"We also need the track, trace and isolate programme to be working efficiently so there is public confidence in schools opening."

Prof O'Neill said the closure of schools has had a significant impact on children for a range of reasons, including social isolation, educational attainment and even ensuring that some children have access to a cooked meal once a day.

Schools also provide important respite for children with special needs, while experts have raised concerns that children at risk of neglect or abuse are not being detected as they are not at school.

A group of experts, led by Prof Ellen Townsend at Nottingham University, has sent a letter to Mr Williamson urging him to act urgently to safeguard the mental health of tens of thousands of children across the UK.

It states: "As experts working across disciplines we are united as we urge you to reconsider your decision and to release children and young people from lockdown. Allow them to play together and continue their education by returning to pre-school, school, college and university, and enjoy extra-curricular activities including sport and music as normally, and as soon, as possible."

The letter has warned that the "relative shortage of expert and scientific input" on the Government's Sage committee "is an important and dangerous omission".

It continues: "The lockdown exacerbates key risk factors known to increase the risk of self-harmful thoughts and feelings including defeat, entrapment, loneliness/social isolation, hopelessness and anger. Mental health problems also contribute to self-destructive thoughts and behaviours and sadly, a national survey in 2017 indicated that these were increasing, particularly among teenagers.

"Since lockdown, we are seeing increases of these issues in young people through surveys at the University of Oxford, the Mental Health Foundation, and rapid reviews indicate these trends are likely to persist."

Education Minister Peter Weir is currently drawing up guidance for schools in Northern Ireland to reopen.

However, the plans have faced some opposition from teaching unions who have expressed safety concerns.

They were also angry that Mr Weir announced his intention for schools to begin opening on August 17 during an online briefing with principals.

Meanwhile, schools have raised concerns over how the plans will work, with a reduced working week necessary due to social distancing.

Belfast Telegraph