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Talk of a COVID baby boom turns into fears of a baby bust – here’s what the data reveals

Written by on 26/01/2021

In the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis as the UK entered its first national lockdown, midwives were bracing themselves for a busy period in nine months’ time.

With people ordered to stay at home during the shutdown, it was suggested couples may take the opportunity to spend more intimate time together.

Tragic events in the past had been followed by a rise in births and there was talk of a generation of “coronababies”, in a similar fashion to the baby boom after the Second World War.

A premature baby is cared for at Burnley General Hospital
Image: It was suggested there could be a baby boom after the first lockdown

“It was something we were on the lookout for,” Birte Harlev-Lam, from the Royal College of Midwives, told Sky News.

“We know in maternity services, big events do seem to give a swing in birth numbers upwards.

“For example, when Princess Diana died we saw a rise in births nine months later.

“When we had the tsunami in Thailand (in December 2004), nine months later we saw a big rise.

“When there are big disasters, it does seem people take comfort in each other and we generally see a bit of a baby boom.

“I think there was a thought, very early on, this might happen again because it was a scary time with COVID.”

What does the data reveal?

Official figures on the number of births in the UK in 2020 are not due to be published until later this year.

But exclusive data obtained by Sky News suggests the number of women going for NHS pregnancy scans dropped last year during the pandemic.

Figures from NHS trusts in England show the rate of 12-week scans carried out in 2020 fell by 4% on 2019 and 5% on 2018, despite maternity services continuing throughout the pandemic.

The data, released by 80 trusts under the Freedom of Information Act, also suggests the introduction of the lockdown had little impact.

The number of pregnancy scans carried out 12 weeks after the March shutdown was introduced was almost the same as over the same period in 2019 (1% decrease) and 12% down on 2018.

Ms Harlev-Lam said it quickly became evident that the expected increase in pregnant women seen by the NHS had not materialised.

“Maternity services were watching for their booking numbers and scan numbers and they kept saying to us ‘we’re not seeing an increase’,” she added.

“Some places saw a bit of a rise but overall across the country there wasn’t that increase that potentially we thought we might see.”

In fact, there has been continuation of the “slow downward trend” in the number of births witnessed in recent years, Ms Harlev-Lam added.

Neonatal nurse Kirsty Hartley carries premature baby Theo Anderson to his mother Kirsty Anderson
Image: After the first lockdown, there was talk of a generation of ‘coronababies’

Is the UK facing a ‘baby bust’?

There are now warnings from others that the UK could be facing a “baby bust” due to the coronavirus crisis.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has predicted there could be fewer babies born in the UK in 2021 than in “any year since records began”.

In its UK Economic Outlook report, the accounting giant said for many people the pandemic has “significantly impacted the decision of whether or not to have a baby”.

Fears about job security, the health risks of COVID-19 and restrictions on partners being present at births may have a “negative impact on pregnancies”, PwC said.

The chart shows the number of live births in UK (in thousands) since 1900, with projections from 2019. Pic: PwC
Image: The chart shows the number of live births in the UK (in thousands) since 1900, with projections from 2019. Pic: PwC

Revised guidance issued by the NHS in December says pregnant women in England are now permitted to have one person beside them “at all stages of her maternity journey” and attend appointments, as long as the support partner is not showing any COVID symptoms.

Other factors that may contribute to a “baby bust” include delays to IVF treatments, the postponement of weddings potentially delaying couples’ plans to start a family, and lockdown measures preventing people from seeing their partners, according to PwC.

“The effects of lower births won’t be felt for decades,” PwC said. “But if the pandemic causes a permanent decline in births, the long-term challenges associated with the UK’s ageing population could be brought forward.”

‘It’s frustrating when time is ticking away like that’

Emily Sheahan-Jones has been unable to receive the IVF treatment she planned due to the pandemic.

The teacher from Bristol had previously gone through four rounds of IVF in the UK before she had fertility treatment in Greece, which led to the birth of her son Wilf in March 2018.

Emily Sheahan-Jones, pictured with her son Wilf, has not been to have the IVF treatment she planned abroad due to the pandemic. Pic: Emily Sheahan-Jones
Image: Emily Sheahan-Jones, pictured with her son Wilf, has not had the IVF treatment she planned abroad due to the pandemic. Pic: Emily Sheahan-Jones

But plans for further IVF in Greece – where treatment is said to be cheaper – to produce a sibling for Wilf have been put on hold because of COVID travel restrictions.

“We’re not really sure what to do now,” Mrs Sheahan-Jones told Sky News.

“I’m 40 this year. It’s frustrating when time is ticking away like that.

“It’s a bit like the last chance saloon this place in Greece. People will go there when they’ve been told by their other clinics it’s not going to happen for you.”

What it’s like giving birth during a pandemic

Stuart Lyons, whose wife Angel gave birth to their second child on New Year’s Eve, said the couple were initially concerned about trying for a baby during the pandemic.

He told Sky News: “At the beginning there was not much understanding of the virus but we had been trying for a baby for two years and the happiness outweighed the concern.”

Mr Lyons, who lives in southeast London, said he was not allowed to attend his wife’s pregnancy scans due to NHS COVID guidelines at the time.

A nurse makes a video of a newborn baby to send to the parents as visiting hours are restricted
Image: New parents have faced restrictions on hospital visiting hours during the pandemic

Her planned caesarean was also cancelled twice in late December after the hospital’s theatres had been converted to allow for more intensive care beds, he added.

“There was clearly very little capacity in the system but once we were in the system the standard of care was very good,” Mr Lyons said.

“It was an admirable service considering the immense strain the NHS is under.”

Despite the fall in the rate of pregnancy scans reported by NHS trusts, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said “anecdotally we are not hearing of a reduction in booking appointments for maternity services”.

It stressed that “maternity services are open and the NHS has made arrangements to ensure that women are supported and cared for safely through pregnancy, birth and the period afterwards during this pandemic”.

 Sky News

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