There has been a lot of discussion lately about ‘getting back to normal’, or ‘the new normal’.  As my period of furlough comes to an end and my return to work approaches, I’ve been thinking about what normality looked like for many families before the emergence of Covid-19 and more importantly whether or not returning to ‘normal’ is something that we should be striving for.  I really do think it’s time to consider what we want our society to look like, and in some respects Covid-19 has provided us with this opportunity.

I guess the first thing to think about is: what does normal mean?  What was life like for children and families in the UK before lockdown began?  What was their ‘normal’?  For some, it will have been a time of freedom, of opportunity and of choice; a time of regular visits to family and friends, days out, and trips to the shops.  There will be a yearning to return to this way of life.

However, for too many it is clear that even before the emergence of Covid-19 life was not like this at all.  Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions show that 4.2 million children in the UK are currently growing up in poverty, a situation which can only have been worsened by the economic impact of Covid-19. 

Furthermore, three million children in the UK were identified as being at risk of holiday hunger - not having enough to eat during the school holidays - and 700,000 children do not have proper internet access.  For these families ‘normal’ is the perpetual, daily choice between whether to feed their children or have the heating on when it is cold outside.  For these families, there is no yearning to return to some blissful, pre-Covid way of life.  There is no wistful nostalgia about better times, only a potential return to the treading of water that for too many families comprises day-to-day life in the UK.

As we look at what we might wish to avoid returning to, we should also consider which aspects of lockdown life we would like to retain.  Within education policy there have been steps in the right direction that must continue and that must be protected. 

For the first time there has been a Government led effort to ensure that all children have had enough to eat during the Easter and May school holidays, and we cannot return to a time where this is not seen as a priority. 

We have also seen the Government agreeing to provide laptops for some vulnerable students to access online learning, acknowledging the digital divide that is a barrier for many children and young people.  Although there is a lot more work to be done, these small steps in the right direction must not be reversed.  We cannot and should not want to return to a time of parents missing meals in order to feed their children and pupils missing out on learning opportunities and socialisation with friends because of a lack of internet access.  The welfare of ‘disadvantaged children’ has been central to discussions in regard to wider school opening, and we need to ensure that the needs and welfare of these children remain at the heart of all policy making as we return to our usual way of life.

As a society that has shown extra care and compassion for each other at this difficult time, we must ensure this continues as we move to the ‘new normal’.  At a time of phenomenally rapid invention and change, and with businesses, organisations and schools adapting constantly to new guidance, we have to keep asking ourselves the key question:

What do we want to leave behind in the pre-Covid society, and what do we want to keep and take forward with us to ensure that all of our children grow up to be healthy and happy?  The moment we stop asking that question is the moment we start to go back to ‘normal’ – a normal that for too many families and children is defined by hardship, hunger and heartbreaking poverty.