The first lockdown was “devastating” to some children needing speech therapy in north Wales, according to a new report.
A probe by North Wales Community Health Council (NWCHC) found the progress some children made in their speech was lost.
The therapy sessions for children stopped almost completely in March 2020 and did not start again until September 2020.
Betsi Cadwaladr health board, which runs the NHS in North Wales has apologised for the disruption.
It said staff were working hard to help everyone who missed out.
The report discovered some youngsters dropped out of the system completely, and were unable to begin sessions again until later than September 2020, when their parents contacted the health board with concerns.
Speech and language therapy sessions are provided to children and adults to help them communicate.
Therapists also work with people who have learning disabilities and adults who have had a stroke, as well as helping people who have difficulties eating and swallowing.
Six-year-old Ed, from St Asaph, in Denbighshire, said: “Speech and language therapy is when people help you to do sounds like ‘th’ and ‘n’.
“I need help to do the ‘s’ sound because when I do it, it doesn’t come out right.”
Ed’s mother, Karen, said: “When the pandemic started, there was no contact at all.
“Lockdown was hard for all of us, but something could have been offered during that early period.
“I’m hopeful the problem can be corrected, but what’s begun to happen as he gets older is that other children have begun to make comments.”
‘Wait and see’
Karen was worried her son’s confidence could be affected.
She said: “That was something we’d hoped to avoid with early intervention, but now it’s a case of wait and see.
“He’s now due to start speech and language therapy sessions again in April, but I had to push hard to get them.”
Many parents told the health council they understood the March 2020 lockdown was difficult for everyone.
But they also said more could have been done to continue some form of contact with children using video conferencing.
NWCHC chief, Geoff Ryall-Harvey, said many parents felt their children lost services at a crucial stage and this was compounded by not seeing other children.
“Some parents felt that their children had lost all progress made in previous months and that the effect upon their child’s development had been devastating,” he said.
“Parents acknowledged that the pandemic had presented everyone with extreme challenges and that it had been necessary to redeploy staff to deal with vaccinations and care for sick patients in hospital.
“However, they also felt that more could have been done to continue contact with children using the service, albeit in a limited way, using video conferencing and digital technology.”
Betsi Cadwaladr health board’s acting therapies and health sciences executive director, Gareth Evans, said: “We acknowledge and apologise for the disruption caused to our patients during Covid-19.
“In order to keep patients and staff safe, we followed Welsh government directives to suspend planned care at critical peak times during the pandemic.
“A third of our speech and language therapy staff were redeployed during the first wave of the pandemic to support essential services such as staffing Covid wards.”
Once “attend anywhere” technology was available, Mr Evans said essential outpatient speech services began again, either in person or virtually.
“We established the highest level of virtual patient activity in the health board and helplines for paediatric patients were also set up to provide a direct link to professionals for families,” he added.
Mr Evans said a Covid recovery plan was being implemented which included extended and flexible clinics, more remote appointments and prioritising patients affected by the pandemic.
He added that speech and language therapy was recognised as a shortage profession in the UK and they were redoubling their efforts to recruit new staff, including Welsh speaking therapists.
“We are also working hard to retain our valued staff with flexible working arrangements to support work-life balance and the introduction of wellbeing champions,” he said.
‘Vital for development’
The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) said the pandemic created other problems for children, who missed out on day-to-day interaction with others during the initial lockdowns.
Philippa Cotterill, of RCSLT Wales, said: “For a period of time, children were really disrupted in all the activities they do – going to school, seeing wider family, going to different places and doing different activities.
“These are all things which are vital for children’s development, and children who have difficulties, those might be more complicated than previously.”