Ensuring children are safe and receiving the care they need during the present pandemic must be a key priority for society, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.
Outlining a range of initiatives undertaken by his Department the Minister said: “I am acutely aware that Covid-19, and the public health measures we’ve had to put in place to control the spread of the virus, have brought increased pressure to children and families in Northern Ireland. In recognition of this, the Department of Health has put in place a range of measures to ensure that children’s services can continue to operate effectively.”
These measures were adopted to allow Health and Social Care Trusts to adapt quickly to the situation as it develops:
- Legislation has been changed to make it possible for social workers to complete their work within longer timescales or to deliver services in different ways.
- Health and Education have worked together to get vulnerable children into school during lockdown and put in place similar arrangements to open up childcare provision for vulnerable pre-school children, including those who may not have needed childcare prior to Covid-19.
- Guidance for the childcare sector ensured access to childcare for key workers and vulnerable children has been protected since the beginning of the pandemic.
- Additional funding was provided to support a range of measures targeted at alleviating pressures for children’s social services and for foster carers, as well as providing extra support for vulnerable young people aged 16 – 21+ living in supported accommodation.
Alongside its response to the pandemic, the Department has been able to progress a number of significant initiatives which will be of benefit to children and families in the longer term.
They include work on an Adoption and Children Bill which Minister Swann intends to introduce in the Assembly in this mandate; work on a Regional Care and Justice Campus– a consultation was recently launched on Campus proposals; and the completion of a Looked After Children Strategy – the strategy will be published in the coming weeks.
Minister Swann said “We have been collecting data throughout the pandemic to build a picture of what is happening in families. We have seen an increase in the number of children being referred to social services, compared with last year, and this upward trajectory is continuing. There are more children on the child protection register and more children in care now in comparison to last year. It is important that we respond to these changes and that is why the Department of Health has led on the development of a cross-departmental Covid-19 Vulnerable Children and Young Peoples Plan. The plan is currently out to consultation.”