The Covid-19 pandemic is having a “lasting impact” on the health and wellbeing of children, health visitors have warned in a new report.
The report, published by the Institute of Health Visiting and the First 1001 Days Movement, surveyed 555 professionals from across the UK, with more than half of them health visitors, on the effect of the pandemic on babies, young children, their carers, and the health services that support them.
“More children are falling behind, inequalities are widening, and some services are reaching a crisis point”
Among its recommendations was for the UK government to create a cabinet post with responsibility for improving outcomes for children in the earliest years of their life.
It also called on all four country governments to work together to mitigate the effect of the pandemic on very young children, and ensure that spending on the youngest children at least matches that allocated to school-age children.
Of those who responded to the survey, 95% said the pandemic had had a negative impact on the personal and social skills of young children, with 92% saying that it had negatively affected very young children’s emotional wellbeing and development.
Almost half (44%) said “many” babies they worked with were affected by increased exposure to neglect and domestic conflict, with 40% reporting that the families of “many” babies they worked with had lost income or had an increased risk of food poverty.
There was also concern among respondents over services for babies and very young children as the NHS attempted to return to pre-pandemic levels of provision.
A total of 65% of respondents said their services had not returned to normal, and 59.5% of professionals surveyed for the report who said that their services were operating differently said that the changes had not benefited families.
And 65% of those surveyed said they did not believe that their local clinical commissioning group, integrated care system, or local health board had done enough to ensure that babies under two and their families received the support they needed to recover from the impact of the pandemic.
“We recognise the impact of the pandemic on the development of babies and young children”
Scottish Government spokesperson
Co-author of the report, Georgina Mayes, policy and quality lead at the Institute of Health Visiting, who is also a health visitor and a registered children’s nurse, said the report showed that the Covid-19 pandemic was having a “lasting impact on many children’s health, wellbeing, and development, and on the ability of services to meet their needs”.
“More children are falling behind, inequalities are widening, and some services are reaching a crisis point,” she said.
“Whilst many professionals are working hard to support the families that they work with, this report clearly shows that demand is outstripping the workforce’s capacity to meet the scale of need.”
Responding to the report, a spokesperson for the Welsh Government said it had invested millions since the pandemic in support for younger children and families including in areas such as speech and communication and social development, to “minimise the impact of the lockdown period”.
Meanwhile, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We recognise the impact of the pandemic on the development of babies and young children.”
They said it had increased the health visiting workforce by more than 500 since 2014 and expanded its family nurse partnership programme for all young first time mothers.
“These essential services largely remained in place during the pandemic with minimal redeployment,” they added.
They said they had also invested in the development of perinatal and infant mental health services.
The UK Government and Northern Ireland executive were also contacted for comment.