Last year, our Committee raised concerns that new parents and their children had been overlooked in the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. Our report, The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave—published in July 2020—found that new parents had missed out on crucial support they could usually expect to receive during this vital time for them and their children. We also found that many employers had not met their health and safety duties towards pregnant women over this period. We were disappointed with the Government’s response to our report, and—having continued to receive petitions highlighting the need for further support for this group—we have returned to this issue.
This report presents our updated findings on how covid-19 has continued to affect new parents and further recommendations for how the Government can better support this group. These include calling on the Government to:
Although the context of the pandemic has clearly changed since our last report—not least with the rollout of safe and effective vaccines, and the lifting of most legal restrictions on social and professional activities in July 2021—the further 12 months of disruption has continued to impact new parents, including new adoptive parents, and their children. The country has not returned to a pre-pandemic situation, and covid-19 continues to have a significant impact on new parents’ access to support services, the availability of childcare and the economic situation in which many new parents are seeking to return to work—as well as the day-to-day context for individuals trying to keep themselves and their families safe.
After 18 months of restrictions, we heard new parents are now facing an accumulation of adversity. Our witnesses identified a clear need for the Government to focus not only on restoring services such as health visiting and maternal mental health services to their pre-pandemic levels, but also ensuring urgent catch-up support is available for parents who have missed out on support over this time. While the Government’s plans for long-term capacity-building in areas such as perinatal mental health and children’s development in the first 1001 days are positive, this will not address the immediate health and developmental needs of these parents and children. This need for catch-up support was a key theme in our report last year, but the Government did not act on our recommendations at that time. It must now reconsider its response.
As more employees cease working from home and businesses continue to feel the economic impact of the pandemic, the position of new and expectant mothers at work is deserving of particular and urgent attention—both in regard to the need for adequate health and safety protections for pregnant women (who are designated as clinically vulnerable to covid-19) and the risk that new mothers in particular may be vulnerable to discrimination and redundancy. The Government’s lack of progress in implementing the employment protections for new parents it promised in its response to our report last year is especially concerning in this context. Looking beyond the pandemic, the Government must also ensure the childcare system can effectively support new parents back into work, and we endorse petitioners’ call for an independent review into childcare funding and affordability to help achieve this.
Too often throughout our work on this topic, both this year and last, we heard that the Government had failed to recognise or appreciate the needs and circumstances of new parents and their children in a timely manner—an impression not helped by its failure to act on the vast majority of the recommendations presented in our report last year. In light of the wide range of ways in which the pandemic has affected new parents, and in order to ensure these issues remain front and centre in Ministers’ minds as we begin to move forward from the pandemic, we now recommend the Government publishes a dedicated covid-19 recovery strategy for new parents, bringing together all Government actions to support this group, with a clear delivery plan. While not a silver bullet, we hope this will go some way to ensuring these issues receive the profile and priority they deserve, but which they have not received to date.
We are immensely grateful to all of those who have engaged with our work on this topic or signed relevant petitions, and we hope the Government will take this opportunity to fully engage with and address their concerns.