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When will schools reopen? How is the government keeping vulnerable people safe? And why are some housing estates better looked after than others?
These were some of the questions asked by four children who quizzed their local MP on a Zoom call this week – as they shared what’s bothering them most during the coronavirus pandemic and what it’s like living in lockdown.
Liz Twist, Labour MP for Blaydon, asked some of her very youngest constituents to join her for an online Q&A – which she dubbed Kids’ Question Time – to share their stories and ideas for coping with changed circumstances.
Earlier this month, the North East Child Poverty Commission drew attention to the challenges of school closures, social isolation and financial pressures on families in the region since the start of the Covid-19 crisis.
“Many children will be feeling deeply unsettled right now,” said Twist. “They may be seeing less of their parents if they are a key worker and won’t be spending as much time outside or with friends. Children may now be isolated from their usual support systems.”
Unsurprisingly, top of the agenda on the Friday morning video call was the question of when kids will get to go back to school.
“I can’t give you a set time,” Twist said, responding to Shevanewe, eight, who asked when he and fellow Kids’ Question Time participants Zoe, 11, and Alfie and Jack, both eight, might be able to return to lessons together.
“I think it’s got to depend on how things are going and how the coronavirus is spreading,” she added. “It’s a difficult decision to be made, but obviously it’s got to be balanced by your need to get a good education.”
Shevanewe asked how the government would ensure that the number of coronavirus cases “continues to drop”. “I think the government has to think about the figures and put more steps in place,” Twist answered. “There’s lots of talk about testing, isn’t there... and we have to make sure we keep our distance, too, so we don’t spread it to people – especially more vulnerable people.”
Alfie, who is on his primary school council and has emailed prime minister Boris Johnson about shortages of equipment for the NHS, jumped in to ask how exactly the government was keeping vulnerable people safe.
“Part of the answer is: we’re all keeping people safe,” Twist said. “By staying at home and only going out for exercise, washing our hands and keeping 2m apart when we go out.
“But there are some older people with health conditions who really need to be looked after. They have to stay at home. In that case, the council and the government are working together to try and make sure they have the things they need – like prescriptions, and food.”
The kids said that generally they were feeling “good” and had been catching up with friends on Zoom and FaceTime, asked how MPs were getting their own meetings done (via Zoom, Twist said).
Zoe, who said she’s been spending lockdown creating her videos advocating for autism awareness – asked Twist about the rules around only going shopping for “essential items”.
“When people say only buy ‘essentials’, have they considered people consider different things ‘essential’?” she asked. “It’s difficult really isn’t it,” Twist replied, “because what’s essential to some might not be essential to others. It’s your judgment call really and I guess we have to bear in mind that people have different needs. I need to buy cat food for example, and you might not!”
Asked what her “personal positives” of lockdown had been, Twist said it was being able to spend time at home with the cat.
Jack said he’s been playing in the garden with his mum, doing board games and having water fights, but asked why “nobody cut the grass or gets rid of weeds or plants nice flowers” near his house, when other housing estates he has seen from his bike are “so much nicer and well looked after”.
Alfie said he had been going outside to play football, and Shevanewe added: “Every now and then I’ll just be able to go out into the sun and relax.”
Speaking after the session finished, Twist said she was impressed by the level of engagement among the participants in what was going on around them, adding: “They were all really good questions.”
“As MPs we can go into schools to talk to children and we can get asked anything. It’s something that I’ve really missed during the lockdown,” she said. “It’s also really important that children have a voice – and it gives us a really different angle on the crisis as a whole.”
Twist is planning further Kids’ Question Time events – parents and carers living in Blaydon can register their interest by emailing email@example.com with their child’s first name, age and a question. Those without reliable internet access can call her team who are working from home on 0191 414 2488.