Nurses and health visitors are among those who have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for ‘urgent action’ to better support babies, young children and their parents.
The letter, led by Unicef UK and supported by the School and Public Health Nurses Association and the Institute of Health Visiting, asks the government to help families that are struggling to access vital services, including maternity, health visiting and mental health support.
It comes as part of a campaign and petition from Unicef UK which calls on the UK Government to commit to a ‘National Baby and Toddler Guarantee’, that would ‘ensure equal access to vital early childhood services’.
According to Unicef UK, latest government data suggests that child poverty in the UK has increased by 300,000 children in a year. The charity said this brought the latest estimate to ‘a staggering 4.2 million’.
A recent poll of parents with children up to four years old found 66% were struggling to afford food, pay their bills and increasing childcare costs amid the cost-of-living crisis.
Parents have also told the charity of the ‘huge’ disparities in access to services in their local areas.
In its letter to the Prime Minister, Unicef UK said: ‘Basic support services like maternity care, health visits, mental health support, affordable and high-quality childcare and support for Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), can offer a vital lifeline to parents at this crucial time in their children’s lives – especially when they’re struggling financially.’
But it added that ‘reduced funds and prices rising’, local authorities have ‘been forced to make impossible choices’ and in some cases close children’s services.
‘Across the country, children’s centres and childcare settings have closed their doors, health visiting appointments have been missed as staffing has reduced and caseloads increased, mental health support for parents and children is hard to come by, waiting lists are long and provision is patchy across the sector,’ added the letter.
‘The universal services that many new parents desperately need are not there for everyone.’
The letter warned Rishi Sunak that ‘families in Britain need your help now’.
‘Summer holidays are just around the corner and instead of looking forward to fun-packed, carefree days, many families are faced with the worrying reality of not being able to put food on the table as they struggle to make ends meet,’ it added.
The campaign comes after school nurses issued a stark warning about the impact of child hunger on children’s health and called on the government to provide free school meals to all primary school pupils.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Health Visiting’s chief executive Alison Morton – who signed Unicef UK’s letter, recently told Nursing in Practice that without increased investment in health visiting and early years care, the government would face ‘soaring treatment costs’ for major conditions.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Unicef UK, said: ‘Every child deserves a bright future, but as families recover from the impacts of the pandemic and face unprecedented rises in the cost of living, this future is under threat.
‘Basic services like health visits and mental health care provide essential support that households need during these turbulent times.
‘They should be there for every baby and young child during their vital early years, but across the country, this isn’t the case and urgent action is needed.’
He added: ‘Together with leading organisations, experts and families across the country we call on the Prime Minister to deliver a Baby and Toddler Guarantee, to ensure all children get the support they need no matter who you are or where you live.’
Unicef UK’s Early Moments Matter petition has so far received more than 48,000 signatures and the charity has heard from more than 300 parents explaining why this issue is so important to them.
One mother said they had seen a ‘huge disparity in postnatal care between me and my friends depending on where we live’. ‘Many of my friends have been left alone, to their own devices, without any signposting or wellness checks,’ they added.
Another said: ‘I’m the mother to a little boy who has autism, and the early years provision in the area has been awful, we’ve struggled to get any help since my son was diagnosed.’
The government has been approached for comment.