The government has been accused of “turning a blind eye” to new parents’ needs in the wake of Covid-19, after failing to act on a call for a dedicated pandemic recovery strategy to improve services.
The Petitions Committee has said the government’s response to its report on the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on new parents, which it has published today, demonstrates a “continued lack of action”.
It said the government has failed to address concerns such as the backlog in parental mental health and health visiting services, and strengthening employment protections for new mothers.
The committee’s initial warnings came in a report into the impact of Covid on parental leave in July 2020, which found parents had “missed out on crucial support, the lack of which could have a huge impact on their mental health and that of their children”.
The MPs called for maternity and paternity leave to be extended to enable new parents “to do all the things that have been impossible while parents and children have been isolated at home” and proposed a catch-up fund to improve access to support.
In a second report in July 2021, the committee said the government had made “little progress” on its recommendations and called for extra funding to speed up implementation of the Best Start for Life report – a plan published in March 2021 to tackle health and wellbeing inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
In its response today, the government rejected the call for a targeted recovery strategy, saying a “coherent approach to responding to the needs of new parents should be based on an understanding of the experiences of all families”.
The response also said the announcement of £500m of funding for family and early-years services in the autumn Spending Review was a “significant step forward in delivering” the Best Start for Life commitments.
But while the MPs said the funding “goes some way to addressing the ‘baby blind spot’ in Covid-19 recovery spending”, they argued that the government’s actions overall had failed to meet new parents’ needs.
“Although most restrictions have now been lifted, the pandemic’s impact will continue to be felt for years to come – especially by new parents, for whom help was cut off when they most needed it,” committee chair Catherine McKinnell said.
“This continued lack of action means new parents’ needs will continue to go unrecognised and unmet, with long-term consequences for their wellbeing and their babies’ health and development.”
She said the government’s response is “all the more disappointing as it is the second time it turned a blind eye to the impacts” of the pandemic on parents.
The 2020 inquiry was launched after an e-petition created at the start of the pandemic - “Extend maternity leave by three months with pay in light of Covid-19” – received more than 230,000 signatures.
Almost two years on, the committee said the government has failed to provide new catch-up funding for health visiting and parental mental health, leaving new parents “facing an accumulation of adversity without the support they deserve”.
McKinnell said the lack of progress on stronger employment protections for new mothers, which were promised in response to the committee’s 2020 report, is “particularly troubling”.
The government committed to strengthen redundancy protections for new and expectant mothers, in response to the July 2020 report. Its response today to last year’s publication reiterated that commitment, but MPs said it has again failed to set a timetable for doing so.
The committee also criticised ministers’ “continued refusal to extend parental leave and pay entitlements to all new parents and guardians”.
MPs also expressed their disappointment that the government had rejected their call for an independent review into the funding and affordability of childcare, pointing out that 113,000 petitioners had backed the idea.
The committee said that in a survey it had carried out to support its inquiry, 77% of new parents said that the cost of childcare prevented them from getting the kind of childcare they need, while more than two-thirds said they had struggled to access baby and toddler groups over the previous 12 months.