Criminal gangs are recruiting youngsters to pose as key workers and deal drugs during the coronavirus pandemic, the Mayor of London has warned.

Sadiq Khan said children are at “increased risk” during the Covid-19 outbreak and his teams are only able to “scratch the surface” of the national problem.

The Mayor today pledged an extra £750,000 to a City Hall programme that is helping vulnerable youngsters away from a life of crime.

Almost 3,300 young Londoners are forced to supply drugs through so-called ‘county lines’ networks to towns including Brighton, Cambridge, Southampton, Portsmouth and Basingstoke.

County lines are used by drug gangs across the country but 15 per cent of these criminal networks start in London.

The capital is the country’s biggest drugs exporter, supplying illegal substances in 41 counties across the nation.

Gangs are still recruiting children on social media during lockdown, and changing deal times to help them blend in.

The Mayor said criminals were using “uncertainty” from the virus to recruit young Londoners – a third have lost their jobs or been furloughed during the pandemic.

His £3 million Rescue and Response scheme has helped over 1,100 young people in two years.

Megan Hatton, operations manager for the programme, said there has been “huge demand”.

Police or social services spot warning signs when a child is missing, homeless, can not afford food or is known to be using drugs and mixing with criminals.

Most are under 18 years old, but many are not in school or work. They get one-to-one support, including mental health work, improving family relationships or find housing if needed.

And more than 60 per cent have left drugs gangs entirely or cut down contact with them.

The Mayor said it was “encouraging” that his scheme is helping children leave a criminal life behind, but warned that more work is needed all over Britain.

“We know we’re only scratching the surface of a major national issue that has evolved and is still driving violence in London and across the country,” he said.