Normally, social and financial instability can send birth numbers plummeting. But the UK could in fact be heading for another baby boom – even after a year of lockdowns. This could help spur on Britain’s recovery from the pandemic and drive a fresh period of economic prosperity.
In May last year there was a dip in antenatal bookings, the appointments women have between eight to 12 weeks into a pregnancy. But in the fourth quarter of last year, the number of appointments jumped to the highest since records began in 2015 – up 6.8% compared with September 2019, according to new NHS maternity statistics.
While the lockdown has undoubtedly been difficult for many, it has also given couples time to stop and reflect about their future plans, as well as highlighting the importance of the family unit when cut off from our usual networks. There is also a more basic point: without the commute or other distractions, couples have had more time to have more sex.
Before the pandemic, global fertility rates have been falling below what is known as the replacement level – the number of children born for a population to exactly replace itself without migration. Without this, there is an ageing population and over-stretched resources. In the UK we have been below this level for some time and there have been dire warnings of a “population crash” with severe economic consequences. At a time when the global economy is under even more pressure, a new baby boom could safeguard our future generations from an even greater social and economic crisis.
As we come out of lockdown, there must be a renewed effort to bring back Britain’s fertility rates. This is a delicate balance and does not mean rolling back education and access to contraception and fertility choices. Nor is it simply about telling couples to have more sex. We must look at how we harness the factors driving this recent boom and introduce long-term, permanent changes to how we live and work that will drive a continued baby boom.
Many women are afraid to take time out of their work to have a baby and feel they must make a choice between continuing to pursue their career and motherhood. The shift towards remote working has made some feel more comfortable with the prospect of juggling the two. We must have policies that effectively protect parents in the workplace. This should enable both parents to be able to have flexibility in the work. Family friendly policies including childcare and parental leave must be driven by both government and industry.
Another problem we must confront is fertility. There needs to be a clear and open programme empowering women and men to protect their fertility if they decide to have children later in their lives. One in six couples face fertility problems. Single women and same-sex couples need fertility treatment to conceive. To support these women and couples we must provide better access to and funding for fertility treatments. Public funding for IVF treatment is declining and unavailable in some areas, meaning only those able to privately fund treatment have access.
Of course a child brings so much into the world and every birth creates endless possibilities. But it is also an economic problem to tackle: the value of a child born in the UK is estimated to be £700,000 over their lifetime through tax and pension contributions. That figure that dwarfs the cost of funding IVF (around £20,000). By fundamentally rethinking how we approach, budget for and fund fertility treatment, we are not only ensuring everyone who wants to has the opportunity to become a parent, but also supporting the future economic success of the UK.