Jed Cinnamon on how Covid has affected crucial services
The pandemic has intensified the stresses of becoming a new parent. Even in normal circumstances, we know that early help from professionals and local services for parents is crucial. A study by the LSE showed that it is well worth the investment in terms of future costs. However, whether this support has been accessible to families during the pandemic depends on their postcode.
In some parts of the UK, 100 percent of new parents receive a check of their newborn in the first 14 days; in others, according to research by Home Start this figure is only one in four. A new mother participating in this important recent survey from a coalition of early years charities put it simply: “No one wants to see my baby.”
For new parents and newborn babies, services are nowhere near back to pre-pandemic levels, and thousands are still without crucial support in their baby’s first weeks, months and years. Health visiting, GP services and baby groups are among the many services that have operated with significant restrictions, including replacing face-to-face services with phone calls and digital alternatives. In some areas, services have simply not reopened at all, whilst much of the rest of society opened up in 2021.
Children from poorer families start to fall behind their wealthier peers from a young age, so checks such as these provide a vital window to intervene early. Unsurprisingly, the initial signs are that the pandemic is set to widen the attainment gap between these groups of children, a gap that our fairer start mission is trying to close. A baby born during the pandemic may have been affected by this postcode lottery before they were even born. Their mother would have been less likely to have regular scans, for example – just 28 percent of respondents to a survey by BioMed Central of new mothers reported having regular scans.
Children from poorer families start to fall behind their wealthier peers from a young age, so early years checks provide a vital window to intervene early
Families may have sought help and advice from community-led baby and toddler groups. But it is likely they will have struggled. 93 percent of respondents to a House of Commons’ Petition Committee survey had found it difficult to access local groups. A toddler’s chances of having a two-year progress review with a health visitor were even slimmer – if they live in the “wrong” local authority, it could be as low as 1 in 20.
Patchy and inconsistent provision has coincided with the huge health, social and economic impact of the pandemic on families, so we should expect to see significant consequences for years to come. Based on the signals above, in 2022, we will see the impact become more visible. Emerging evidence already suggests the pandemic will have a negative impact on child development. 2020/21 data from the Office of Health Improvement & Disaprities shows a decline in the percentage of children at or above the expected level compared to the previous year (only 7 in 10 actually received this check). This echoes findings from surveys of early years professionals at Oftsed, who have reported increased concerns for children’s developmental progress.
As children born during the pandemic get older, we will see the consequences of the withdrawal of so much early face-to-face support. Undiagnosed health and developmental conditions will start to become apparent to professionals – for instance as children begin nursery or school following pandemic-related delays. As we look ahead to the potential need for extended restrictions in 2022, we must learn lessons from the past two years and prioritise support for new parents and babies – especially the more vulnerable ones. Policies such as Family Hubs have the potential to support local areas to restore and improve services. But initiatives must be backed by funding and delivered in a way that empowers local areas to respond to local needs and test, learn and adapt services accordingly.
Technology offers new ways to reach families, if integrated carefully and used alongside the restoration of face-to-face support: parents are keen to access online help and apps such as Baby Buddy show promise. Community and voluntary support groups have been a crucial source of help for many families since March 2020. With the right funding and planning, local networks can also be a powerful part of the ecosystem of support new families need.
If we fail to learn lessons about which services must be prioritised, even when parts of society must close down, then we will continue to see negative consequences for families and the gap between poorer and richer children widen. But this signal is also an opportunity to reshape services to better meet local needs, for instance to utilise learning from the rapid introduction of technology. As ever, during this pandemic, it will be a question of priorities.