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May 11, 2021

In Episode 6 of Series 6, Todd is joined by Professor Aoife Nolan, to discuss the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the human rights of children. Aoife is Professor of International Human Rights Law and Co-Director of the Human Rights Law Centre in the School of Law at the University of Nottingham. She is also Vice-President of the Council of Europe European Committee of Social Rights and has worked with a range of civil rights organisations.


Todd begins by asking Aoife to outline the impact of the pandemic on the human rights of children. She points to the wide-ranging global impact of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, in terms of the health and survival of children and identifies a range of issues including, education, food access, mental health, increased levels of child abuse, the impact of poor housing, loss of social contact and increased risk of online harm. All of these directly affect children’s rights. 

Aoife explains that the pandemic has had a hugely unequal impact on children from different backgrounds and living in different situations. She adds that this has entrenched existing inequalities. Unaddressed, she concludes, this will have an impact on the future life-course of some children.


Todd moves on to focus on the actions of governments during the pandemic and the extent to which they were compatible with the rights of children.

Aoife points to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises that restrictions on human rights may be necessary in times of crisis but also the limitations on the exercising of those powers.

Todd wonders whether in the light of criticism from anti-lockdown groups, governments have responded to the crisis in an appropriate way. Aoife makes the following points:

  • There have been a wide range of measures in different states
  • In the UK there have been positive measures, but also shortcomings in terms of food and support for families
  • Some governments have used the crisis to push long-standing agendas not consistent with child rights, for example in relaxing obligations to children in care


Aoife gives an example of how the pandemic has been used to weaken various statutes related to the protection of children in social care. She explains how changes have been made in relation to the duty of Local Authorities towards education health and social care. She notes that these changes have been reversed as a result of pressure on the government. She says there are concerns that Covid-19 was being used as a cover for mass de-regulation of social care.

She mentions that the UK’s Department of Education was found to have acted unlawfully in scrapping a range of rights for children in care. A child rights impact assessment carried out by the department, which signed off the measure showed a lack of understanding of child rights. She points out that this move was later reversed.


Todd moves the discussion to the USA, which has not ratified the UN convention on human rights. He points to differences in approach between the Trump administration and the Biden administration and asks Aoife to comment on the progress towards getting children back into school.

Aoife points out that approaches to education are very much state driven, and although not an expert on matters relating to US education points out that:

  • Schools cannot re-open without adequate planning, safety provision, and funding
  • Even though the USA is not a party to the UN Convention, individual state constitutions include provisions for the protection of children’s rights


Aiofe reviews the situation in South Africa around school closures and re-opening, and says the net effect has been to amplify inequalities within the country:

  1. The effect of closures was to move education online but large numbers of children did not have access to the internet
  2. There were issues around re-opening in terms of infrastructure shortcomings and lack of support for school re-opening

As a result, re-opening took place against in non-Covid safe schools with implications for health, provision of school meals, and education.

They move on to discuss the terrible situation with Covid-19 cases and deaths in India and what Aoife thinks about the impact on children’s rights. She suggests that, beyond concerns related to Covid infections, the health crisis and associated lockdowns have interfered with the normal processes of vaccinations and health interventions, as well as in education.


Asked about the response of the Council of Europe, of which she is a member, Aoife reports that the Council has identified worrying trends in respect of:

  • School closures
  • Lack access to healthcare services
  • Mental health issues
  • Loss of social contact


Todd asks about the work of activists and advocacy groups in mitigating the impacts of the pandemic. Aoife says she has been impressed by the large amount of energetic work, and advocacy by both regional and international groups including:

  • The strength of the ongoing discourse on children’s rights globally.
  • The UN policy brief The Impact of COVID-19 on children. Is evidence of the traction of children’s rights.
  • Children’s rights currently occupy a higher profile than other affected groups.

20.23 – 23.10

Todd’s asks about priorities for the post-Covid era.

  1. In Aoife’s view there must be meaningful steps to get children’s rights to the centre of the recovery effort and policy planning
  2. She warns of the potential austerity cuts that may follow in the post-Covid phase and predicts that they will be catastrophic for children’s rights
  3. There is a need to acknowledge and deal with the structural inequalities in society, which are exacerbated by the pandemic, and which impinge directly on children’s rights


Todd asks Aoife to reflect on the importance of the voices of children themselves. She believes children have been excluded from the decision-making process. Their voices and views have been ignored by governments and that this is contrary to Human Rights Law. There is an urgent need for this situation to be redressed. 

However, the issue of children’s rights is part of a wider concern for Human Rights she concludes. There is a need for “inter-generational solidarity.” This requires children’s rights groups to work alongside disabled groups, older people, women’s groups and others to bring about change.

Further Reading

Protecting the most vulnerable children from the impact of coronavirus: An agenda for action. UNICEF,

Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Children United Nations 2020

 COVID-19 Statement United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, April 2020

Statement on COVID-19 and Social Rights European Committee of Social Rights, April 2021

A Child Rights Crisis  A. Nolan, LRB Blog, May 2020

Should Schools Reopen? The Human Rights Risk -An Advisory Note for the Independent SAGE – A. Nolan,  May 2020 

Of Limitations and Retrogression: Assessing COVID-19’s Impact on Children’s ESC Rights A. Nolan & J. Bueno de Mesquita, May 2020

Covid-19 Protocol R(Article 39) v Secretary of State for Education  [2020] EWCA Civ 1577 24 Sept 2020, 

Equal Education & Others v Minister of Basic Education & Others  2020 ZAGPPHC 306 (17 July 2020)