School closures during lockdown have seen a generation of children dragged into crime both as victims and perpetrators, senior police officers and campaigners have warned.

Stark new figures reveal how the problem of youth crime has exploded during the pandemic with teenage homicide, county lines and child sexual exploitation all soaring during the last 16 months.

Children missing months of school, combined with youth clubs, sports centres and other facilities being closed, has allowed gangs, drugs dealers and paedophiles to exploit lockdown by targeting young people across the UK.

London has seen the highest number of teenage murders in more than a decade, with 21 young people killed on the streets of the capital already this year, the majority of them stabbed to death.

Experts believe the terrifying spike in violence is partly down to gangs seeking to expand their territory and target rivals following months of lockdown during which their activities were curtailed.

Teen homicides in London

Figures from the National Referral Mechanism, which indicates the number of children being drawn into modern slavery through county lines drug dealing gangs, also shows a 61 per cent increase during the 12 months since the pandemic started, compared to the previous year.

Gangs have increased their recruitment activity during lockdown by targeting young people “hanging around” on local streets, according to research carried out by the Local Government Association.

Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association, said keeping children in the classroom was vital in spotting the early signs of children being drawn into crime.

He said: “As well as schools and youth services being closed, the support networks outside the family that provide preventative and diversionary opportunities have not been there.

“As a result, that so-called ‘sliding doors’ moment for so many young people has been lost. No one is necessarily to blame, but I really do feel for this generation that has not had that vital support during the last 16 months.

“The power of early intervention cannot be overstated and the classroom is a key part of that. These are pivotal moments and by the time someone has been sent to a young offenders institute or a prison, it is often too late.

“Lockdown has also made it very difficult for parents to protect their children. Youngsters have been left feeling isolated. Parents try their best but they find it hard to dedicate the time because of their own work commitments.”

The isolation caused by lockdown combined with the financial pressures suffered by many families, also made children easier to target and exploit.

Danger of county lines gangs

County lines gangs that use teenagers to distribute drugs to towns and villages around the country have been sought to exploit lockdown, but have had to adapt their tactics.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Graham McNulty, from Scotland Yard, said fewer commuters meant it was harder for gangs to use public transport, so they simply began using cars.

He said: “Organisations highlighted their fears regarding the vulnerabilities that could be created by lockdown and a lack of contact between children and teachers, care workers and health professionals that could lead to exploitation going unnoticed.”

But he said lockdown had also presented the police with an opportunity to be more proactive around tackling violence and gangs as many other crime types fell.

Spotting the signs of exploitation

Despite this, experts have stressed the importance of keeping children in the classroom to prevent them being drawn into crime.

Lucy Dacey, the National Disrupting Exploitation Programme manager at The Children’s Society, said: “Under successive lockdowns, opportunities to spot the signs of children being exploited have become more limited. 

“Teachers, youth workers and community leaders have had less contact with young people, making it more challenging to spot that something is wrong at an early stage.

“At the same time, many young people have been struggling with loneliness and spending more time talking to their peers online, while families may have been facing particular hardship amid drops in pay and job cuts.

“This has created an almost perfect storm for criminals looking to exploit them, who have adapted their methods to target such vulnerabilities and cynically groom children with offers of friendship, cash, food, drugs and alcohol, and status.”

Paedophiles targeting children online

Lockdown has also provided an opportunity for predatory paedophiles to target young people who have been forced to spend increasing amounts of time online.

Recent figures from the National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed that up to 850,000 people in the UK now pose a sexual threat to children.

Police have warned that lockdowns and school closures have fuelled the surge in online sexual abuse as young people spend more time on the internet.

In its annual strategic assessment, the NCA said: “It is highly likely that some individuals who began or increased their online offending or networking during lockdown will continue these behaviours after Covid-19 restrictions end.

“Similarly, some children who increased their online footprint during lockdown are highly likely to remain active online, increasing the potential victim base.”