Covid pressure on health visitors puts generation of babies at risk, charities say

Harriet Sherwood
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

A generation of babies born during the Covid-19 pandemic may be at risk because they and their parents are not being fully supported by health visitors in the weeks and months after birth, a coalition of children’s charities has said.

The NSPCC and nine other early-years charities say restrictions to the service and redeployment of health visitors could mean thousands of families do not receive checks they are entitled to.

Only one in 10 parents with children under the age of two saw a health visitor face to face during lockdown, according to a study published in August.

Health visitors support new parents and infants from birth until the child is two, advising on feeding and growth, sleeping, vaccinations and development, and identifying parents who need mental health support. All families are entitled to five checks, the first usually a home visit.

But a survey carried out by University College London in June and July found that in some areas of England as many as 50% of health visitors were redeployed during the first phase of the pandemic. Public Health England recently advised against such redeployment over the winter.

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Even before the pandemic, NSPCC research found that one in four mothers had checks conducted by letter, text or phone instead of receiving face-to-face support.

The NSPCC has written to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to tell him that England’s health visitor programme is not able to meet the challenges of the pandemic. More than 2,000 members of the public have also signed the letter.

The NSPCC’s public affairs manager, Andrew Fellowes, said: “The government is at risk of failing a generation of children if it does not commit to rebuilding the nation’s public health services for 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.”

Cheryll Adams, the chief executive 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 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.”

The NSPCC received almost 1,900 calls to its helpline from people concerned about parental mental health in the six months since April. It has launched a campaign, Fight for a Fair Start, calling on the government to ensure new parents receive mental health support.

The coalition consists of Action for Children, the Association of Child Psychotherapists, Best Beginnings, First 1001 Days Movement, Home Start, OXPIP, the Institute of Health Visiting, NCB, NSPCC and the Parent-Infant Foundation.