Our youngsters are at a higher risk of being swept up into county lines drug gangs during the coronavirus pandemic, experts fear.

Southend’s young people who have fallen through the cracks of the social care system are at increased risk of being groomed into criminal activity over the next few months, according to a new report.

The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, fears a “lost generation of teenagers” could emerge from the pandemic, if they’re not helped by charities or Southend Council.

Martin Terry, councillor in charge of community safety, told the Echo the council is consistently making contact with those who are vulnerable.

Figures from the commissioner’s analysis reveal there were 441 people aged 13 to 17 in Southend who were slipping through the cracks in education and social care provision in 2017 to 18.

That’s around 44.8 per 1,000 teenagers in the age group – one of the highest proportions in the East of England.

The figure includes children who were bounced around or went missing from the care system, were excluded from or dropped out of school, or had high levels of unauthorised absence.

Martin Terry added: “It’s horrible. The criminals hang around our schools and care homes waiting for them. They know who to target. We’re making a huge effort to stop this happening.

“Once they’re embroiled in the criminal gangs, they get stuck in there.

“Southend has a couple of areas of severe deprivation, and we’re working to reduce this, by improving our council housing for example.”

The Echo, Southend Council, and Essex Police ran a joint campaign last year, See the Signs, aimed at supporting young people who are being groomed to speak out and share information with the authorities.

A spokesman or Southend Council, said: “We have just been made aware of this report and we are unable to comment on it specifically given that it relies on data from 2017/18.

“We can confirm that we have been working closely with schools and other providers since lockdown in March, to understand and minimise the impact of Coronavirus on the care, education and well-being of children in the town.

“This work will continue into the new academic year in September and beyond, to ensure that children and young people in Southend receive the support that they need.”