AN inquiry into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children in a North-East town has heard systemic change is needed to make the area a fairer place to live for young people.

While Darlington Borough Council’s children scrutiny committee became among the first bodies in the country to examine the impact of the virus on health, mental health and wellbeing, the hearing was told many people and organisations in the borough were doing their utmost to provide for the needs of young people.

Among the panel, Professor Greta Defeyter, director of the Healthy Living Lab at Northumbria University, spoke about how the pandemic had highlighted the case for universal free school meals for all children, regardless of age.

She said research had showed some of the most deprived areas in the country had been worst hit by a situation where pupils entitled to free school meals were not able to spend the money available to them on school food.

Although some £88m of free school meals funding was going missing annually, the inquiry was told schools in the North-East, such as Carmel College in Darlington were leading changes.

Prof Defeyter added following research finding 35 per cent of children were skipping breakfast following lockdown, it was clear breakfast clubs should be available to all children.

She said: “They support food security, educational attainment, social development, reduce absenteeism and provide childcare for working parents.”

Other contributors to the inquiry included NHS bosses, a headteacher, foodbank operators and mental health experts.

The committee’s chair, Cllr Cyndi Hughes said the event heard from numerous contributors that there is a real divide in experience of the pandemic between the most disadvantaged and the least.

She said: “Those coming from more comfortable backgrounds having access to better learning opportunities, food, health and social connections. In fact, this is something we already knew. The pandemic seems to be merely exacerbating the gaps and the inequalities that already existed.”

Ahead of forming conclusions in March, the committee will hear from children about their experiences during the pandemic.