Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Support services for new parents

1.Since last July, new and expectant parents have continued to face severe limits on the formal and informal support for their wellbeing and their child’s development that they would normally expect. Following a further 12 months of restrictions, the cohort of parents and children in need of catch-up support is now even larger, and the cumulative impact on parents’ health and children’s development has only increased. (Paragraph 13)

2.Support for new families is concentrated in the early months of a child’s life, but for many families this crucial time fell wholly within the extended period of restrictions. Ensuring new parents can now urgently access comprehensive support—including catching up on support they have missed out on since the start of the pandemic—must be a priority for the Government. (Paragraph 14)

3.We welcome the Government and NHS England’s planned programme of capacity-building for perinatal mental health services over the next 2–3 years. However, new parents are already experiencing the mental health impact of covid-19. Plans for long-term capacity-building must be adapted to meet new needs and should sit alongside more immediate investment to address the mental health needs of new parents today—as we recommended last year. (Paragraph 18)

4.We recommend that the Government provides additional funding and resources to bring forward the delivery of its perinatal mental health capacity-building programme. We also recommend that the Government fund primary healthcare services to invest in additional mental health catch-up services for new parents impacted by covid-19. (Paragraph 19)

5.Our inquiry last year heard compelling evidence on the crucial role of community support and parent and baby groups in supporting new parents’ wellbeing. The Government’s recognition of this in exempting such groups from some gathering restrictions last year was very welcome. However, the Government must now do more to clarify how organisers of these groups and classes can offer these services in a safe and responsible way following the lifting of most legal restrictions. (Paragraph 24)

6.The Government should produce clear and dedicated guidance for organisers of community and charity-run support groups (including parent and baby groups) on how they can safely restart and continue classes in a covid-safe way. It should work with group organisers, local authorities and other relevant sector stakeholders to develop this guidance and ensure it is widely communicated. (Paragraph 25)

7.We remain concerned at the number of new parents reporting limited or no access to health visiting services over the period of the pandemic. Virtual checks were a necessary innovation during covid-19, but new parents and their children must now urgently receive in-person visits—ideally from a health visitor, but, if this is not possible and in view of the time-sensitive nature of this need, then from another qualified professional. We agree with the Government that local authorities are best placed to make decisions on local public health funding priorities, but the unique circumstances of covid-19 demand additional central government funding for local services to meet additional need. (Paragraph 31)

8.In order to support parents who have missed health visiting checks, we recommend that the Government provide additional funding to local authorities to enable in-person visits to new parents by appropriate local authority, voluntary organisation, or health visiting staff, to be delivered by the end of the year. (Paragraph 32)

9.We welcome the Government’s confirmation of the increased Adoption Support Fund budget for 2021–22. We agree with our witnesses that long-term funding for this initiative should be made available, as part of comprehensive and ongoing support for adoptive parents to overcome the challenges they have faced during covid-19. (Paragraph 35)

10.We recommend that the Government conduct a review of the services funded under the Adoption Support Fund’s expanded scope in 2020–21, to consider which of the services temporarily offered in response to covid-19 should continue to be in scope for the Fund in future, or even scaled up and offered as standard across the whole of England. The review’s findings should be published in advance of the 2021 Spending Review, to ensure the long-term funding necessary to achieve this can be included in future departmental spending allocations. (Paragraph 36)

Employment and the work environment

11.Despite existing guidance on protecting vulnerable workers on the Health and Safety Executive website and Working Safely guidance on GOV.UK, many pregnant women still report health and safety concerns at work. Adhering to this guidance should not be seen by employers as optional and there is a need to intensify messaging and enforcement to ensure new and expectant parents are, and feel, safe at work. Given that pregnant women were designated as clinically vulnerable, we are surprised to hear that HSE are not formally recording breaches of health and safety with regards to pregnant women and associated enforcement action. (Paragraph 42)

12.We recommend that the Government urgently engage with the Health and Safety Executive and relevant stakeholder groups to review HSE’s monitoring and enforcement activity specifically relating to employers’ health and safety obligations to pregnant women. Any barriers to at-scale enforcement of these obligations must be quickly resolved, to ensure that appropriate enforcement action is taken when employers fail to meet their legal obligations—especially as more employees continue to return to work in person. The Government should also require HSE to record and publish details of enforcement action specifically relating to the safety of pregnant women in future. (Paragraph 43)

13.We welcome the Government’s commitments to tackling workplace discrimination against new and expectant mothers and the actions it is taking to better understand this issue. We echo witnesses’ dismay at the apparent failure of current employment law and the tribunal system to prevent potentially discriminatory redundancies among new and expectant mothers during the pandemic. However, we note these concerns have also previously been expressed by the Women and Equalities Committee as well as in our own report last year, and we support their conclusion that the Government has not taken the necessary preventative actions on this issue—especially in light of its failure to act on the recommendations in our previous report. The Government must swiftly rectify this failing. (Paragraph 49)

14.We echo our recommendation from last year’s report that the Government should legislate as soon as possible to introduce its planned extension of redundancy protections for new and expectant mothers. It must clarify a timeframe for doing this, and, if there is not sufficient parliamentary time to consider a full Employment Bill before the end of the year, the Government should immediately bring forward a short Bill specifically to implement these protections. (Paragraph 50)

15.We also repeat our previous recommendation that the Government should extend the period in which new and expectant parents may bring claims to an employment tribunal. The Government must urgently conclude its work to consider this change and clarify when and how it will be implemented. (Paragraph 51)

Childcare accessibility and provision

16.Despite childcare settings being allowed to remain open since summer 2020, levels of activity remain below pre-pandemic levels. We welcome the steps taken by the Government to support the sector financially during covid-19, but this has not prevented many providers seeing a significant impact on their finances. With ongoing uncertainty about future demand for their services, there is a real risk the pandemic will contribute to an ongoing erosion of provision or even act as a tipping point and accelerate this trend. Long-term, targeted support from the Government will be required to avoid this outcome, which would have serious consequences for children’s early education and parents’ workforce participation. (Paragraph 57)

17.New parents continue to struggle to access the childcare they need to effectively re-enter the workforce on the terms they want. While covid-19 has exacerbated this challenge, the high cost of paid-for childcare is a barrier which both predates covid-19 and will outlast it. More could be done to ensure that Government support, especially for parents of children under 3, alleviates the pressures of these costs for working parents. (Paragraph 58)

18.We support the call of petitioners for an independent review into childcare funding and affordability. We recommend that the Government should commission such a review, to consider how to provide greater financial security to the sector following the pandemic, as well as consulting with parents on how to ensure childcare provision meets their needs and supports their return to work. This review should include but not be limited to future sector funding allocations, and so should be separate from the ongoing Spending Review process. The Government should set the terms of reference for this review within two months, with a view to publishing the findings of the review by next summer. (Paragraph 59)

Recognising new parents’ needs

19.We welcome the long-term vision of the Government’s Best Start for Life review, but to date covid-19 recovery funding aimed at children aged under 2 appears to have been unjustifiably neglected compared to the funding made available for older children. As we emerge from the pandemic, the Government must ensure it invests proportionately in the infrastructure which supports these families. (Paragraph 63)

20.Ahead of the 2021 Spending Review, we recommend that the Government assess which elements of the Best Start for Life Review’s implementation could be accelerated—in particular, opportunities to grow the health visiting workforce—and provide targeted funding to help achieve this. (Paragraph 64)

21.We welcome the steps taken by the Government and the NHS to provide pregnant women with relevant information as the vaccine rollout continues and as social restrictions are eased. It is vital these efforts are maintained so that pregnant women are effectively supported to protect themselves from covid-19. In particular, it is crucial the Government continues to build on the success of the vaccine programme by continuing to encourage pregnant women to be vaccinated. (Paragraph 67)

22.The Government should continue to work with health authorities to communicate information about pregnancy and covid-19, including vaccine safety and emerging data on the risks of covid-19 when pregnant, to support informed decisions by pregnant women. (Paragraph 68)

23.We are disappointed that the Government is yet to act to resolve inconsistencies in the availability or treatment of parental leave and pay entitlements for groups including self-employed adoptive parents, special guardians, and recipients of Maternity Allowance on Universal Credit, despite our report last year highlighting the financial and other negative impacts this can have on these families and recommending how these issues could be resolved. (Paragraph 71)

24.We restate our recommendations from last year, that the treatment of Maternity Allowance and Statutory Maternity Pay in Universal Credit should be equalised; that parental benefits available to self-employed birth parents should be extended to self-employed adoptive parents; and that parental leave and pay should be offered to special guardians. (Paragraph 72)

Conclusion

25.The Government’s response to our report last year failed to acknowledge the need for urgent action to support new parents, rejecting almost all of our recommendations. One year on, many of the concerns we raised remain live issues. While the enormous demands of managing the nation’s response to the pandemic must be recognised, it is bitterly disappointing that the Government has failed to invest in catch-up services that could have helped mitigate the impact on new parents and their children of the first lockdown, or progressed crucial employment protections for new parents. We believe responding to the diverse needs of this group requires cross-Government buy-in and should be seen as a priority moving forward from the pandemic. (Paragraph 76)

26.Given the multifaceted impact the pandemic has had on new parents, and to ensure their needs are specifically considered going forward, the Government should publish a covid-19 recovery strategy for new parents alongside its response to this report, and should report on progress against this strategy by next summer. This strategy should bring together all Government actions to support new parents following the covid-19 pandemic and should set targets and timeframes for how Government support will be delivered. (Paragraph 77)




Published: 7 October 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement