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Putting early intervention at the heart of the Covid-19 recovery

Published

16 Jun 2020

EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne draws out some of the key insights from our new report, based on a major series of interviews with local service leaders and head teachers across England.

Today we publish Covid-19 and early intervention: Understanding the impact, preparing for recovery. The warning contained in this report is stark: ‘school closures, social distancing and the lockdown have seriously affected the ability of services to support children and families at the very time that these families are facing even greater challenges.’ As the country starts to draw up and roll out plans to ease the lockdown and inch towards normality, it is clear that early intervention and early help must be an integral part of the Covid-19 recovery.

Our research, based on interviews conducted by EIF and Action for Children, paints an ominous picture of a wave gathering pace beneath the surface. Beyond the immediate impacts of the lockdown on issues such as children’s mental health, levels of family conflict, academic progress or the effects of social isolation – many of which are visible and widely recognised already – our interviewees have highlighted the compounding risks created by a period when traditional face-to-face social services and interventions have been radically reshaped, severely constrained or simply cut off altogether. As pressing as the immediate concerns are, we must also look further ahead, to the problems that are being stored up by this systemic disruption. As lockdown conditions are eased, services face a double hit, not only from more families needing more support to deal with a wider range of problems, but also from the knock-on consequences of fewer people having received the support that would usually have been available at key moments in their lives. These consequences will leave a lasting mark on the lives of many.

“As lockdown conditions are eased, services face a double hit, not only from more families needing more support to deal with a wider range of problems, but also from the knock-on consequences of fewer people having received the support that would usually have been available at key moments in their lives.

Early intervention and early help have long played a crucial role in identifying and providing additional support to children and families who need it. While many of these non-statutory services have been continuing to support families remotely or digitally through the lockdown, we know that frontline professionals are concerned that some vulnerable children may have fallen below the radar. The subtler signs of abuse, neglect or domestic violence, for example, are simply much harder to spot without home visits or other face-to-face contact. Only as the lockdown is more widely eased will the full extent of the impact of Covid-19 on children and families become apparent. This will almost certainly result in an increase in referrals to children’s social care and other specialist services – but that won’t be the right answer for all families. Early intervention has a vital role to play in helping to identify those facing new or escalated needs for support, and in providing appropriate, accessible support.

Understandably, and rightly, there will be calls for acute services, including children’s social care, to receive extra funding and support. This is correct and necessary, as these children will continue to need individual support and protection.

However, it will not be sufficient. Acute services cannot simply absorb the additional burden created by a swell of demand as the lockdown eases. And as our research makes clear, there will be increased demand from families who don’t meet the criteria for support from statutory services, but who are wrestling with new and pressing needs created by the strains of the lockdown, or the effects of previous support having been withdrawn. The early help system for children and families below the threshold must be funded to expand to meet this need, so that children and families are able to bounce back strongly. We cannot allow early intervention to be squeezed out at precisely the moment when demand for specialist services spikes and there are even more claims being made on precious public funds. To do so risks placing an even greater burden on our hard-pressed acute services, and allows the new or intensified problems in children’s lives to linger and do harm long after the lockdown has passed.

There is good news here too. Our interviewees tell vivid stories of adaptation and innovation happening across the country, of new partnerships and collaborations seeded and grown, of silos between agencies broken down, of old inertia cast off. It is vital that the lessons from this burst of adaptation are learned and retained, and that precious gains – such as schools working more closely with early help services – are banked for the future. The old normal is not returning any time soon, and the approaches conceived and honed under lockdown conditions will have a vital role to play for many months yet.
The keys here are testing, evaluation and information-sharing, so that the best of these innovations are identified and spread, and so that local decision-makers and service-users alike can have confidence in the new forms of support that have sprung up. For instance, some children and families appear to be benefitting from the move to virtual or digital delivery of services. It is critical that these approaches are evaluated, and that decisions on which changes to service delivery to keep are made with this in mind.

“We cannot allow early intervention to be squeezed out at precisely the moment when demand for specialist services spikes and there are even more claims being made on precious public funds.

Many of our interviewees were proud of how their local services have responded, and rightly so. What is clear, however, is that the consequences of this lockdown and the disruption it has brought will not be confined to the present or near future, but will emerge over the months and years ahead, in ways that are complex and unpredictable. Our national and local services must be funded and supported to meet that challenge.

A huge number of questions remain. How can we mitigate the long-term impacts on children? How can local places track the impact of Covid-19 on children through the recovery period and beyond, to help plan future services? How should local monitoring and data practices adapt to reflect the changed environment? How can local areas support their recovery by prioritising early intervention as part of their social infrastructure investment? We and others will be examining some of these questions over the coming months, so that the recovery has effective, evidence-led early intervention at its heart.

This blogpost is adapted from the foreword to the report.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is chief executive at EIF.