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Fears raised for babies born during pandemic

The government is at risk of failing a generation of babies born during the COVID-19 pandemic, a coalition of charities has warned.

Backed by 2,000 members of the public, the coalition which includes NSPCC, Action for Children, The Association of Child Psychotherapists, Best Beginnings, First 1001 Days Movement, Home Start, OXPIP, The Institute of Health Visiting, NCB and The Parent-Infant Foundation, have written a letter urging Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock to rebuild health visiting services in England to support new and expecting parents in these difficult times.

Andrew Fellowes, Public Affairs Manager at the NSPCC said: “Without the right support, perinatal mental health problems, and difficulties in the parent-infant relationship can have serious immediate and long-term consequences for both children and families.

“Before the pandemic began the health visiting service was struggling to support parents and babies across the country, and we know it is not equipped to meet the challenge of the Coronavirus pandemic.

“We are urging Matt Hancock to ensure there is sufficient funding and resources, so no families are left behind at a time when they will be relying on this support the most,” he added.

The call comes after the chief inspector of Ofsted Amanda Spielman told the annual Association of Directors of Children’s and Adults Services conference last week that violence towards under 1’s had increased since lockdown restrictions were introduced back in March .

Amanda Spielman said that between April and October, the inspectorate saw over 300 serious incident notifications. “A significant proportion of these – almost 40% – were about babies, over a fifth more than in the same period as last year. And tragically, over half of these cases – that’s 64 children – suffered non-accidental injuries. And sadly, 8 died as a result,” said Ms Spielman.

The coalition’s ‘Fight for a Fair Start’ campaign urges the government to make sure all new parents receive the mental health support they need now and beyond the pandemic.

Services struggled to support families across the country even before the pandemic. The NSPCC and other organisations have long warned government about cuts to public health funding and the significant decline in NHS health visitors.

Coronavirus restrictions have resulted in many women giving birth alone without their partners present and new parents have been cut off from their support network of family and friends.

Only 1 in 10 parents with children under two saw a health visitor face-to-face during the pandemic.

As a result, the role of health visitors is more important than ever. But the pandemic has also meant restrictions to the service and redeployment of health visitors, meaning many families are left without health visits.

In fact, the NSPCC’S helpline has received 1,897 contacts from adults concerned about parental mental health since April, with over half being serious enough to be referred for further support. The monthly average number of contacts post-lockdown has increased by over a third compared to the NSPCC’S monthly average for January to March.

The coalition are urging the government to recognise this as a timely opportunity to rebuild the nation’s public health services for children and families. All families in England are entitled to receive five check-ins from qualified health visitors via the Healthy Child Programme.

However, research carried out with over 2,000 mothers in England with YouGov prior to the pandemic found only 6% had been supported by the same health professional throughout the perinatal period. One in four mothers had reviews conducted via letter, text message, or a phone call instead of face-to-face support.
Public Health England recently announced that health visitors should not be redeployed over the winter. But research by UCL has found that in some areas of England, as many as 50% of staff were redeployed during the first phase of the pandemic.

Dr Cheryll Adams, Executive Director of the Institute of Health Visiting said: “Over the past five years we have seen an average 30% reduction in the number of health visitors in England, accompanied by a massive variation in these losses across the country. The average health visitor caseload is now 500 children, double the recommended number.

“The number of invisible vulnerable babies will have increased and perinatal mental illness is already reported by health visitors to be ‘sky rocketing’.

“The whole population will also be paying the price - the erosion of the health visitor role results in kicking the can down the road where the impact is picked up by other much more costly services. We urge the government to listen to the voices of parents, charities and health professionals now and take urgent action to reinstate a robust health visiting service before even more damage is done,” she concluded.

For more information about the Fight for a Fair Start campaign, visit the NSPCC’S website.

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