Boris Johnson has appointed former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom to carry out a review into how to improve health outcomes for babies and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Leadsom said she would be focusing on the first 1,001 days of a baby’s life – from conception – and that her findings would contribute to the government’s “levelling up” agenda.

“Ensuring that every baby has the best start in life is my passion in politics and I am delighted to be asked by the prime minister to chair a review of early years services on behalf of the government.

“Infant mental health is about more than babies. It’s about improving our whole lives and striving for better outcomes that have a profound effect from cradle to grave.”

She highlighted a range of problems faced by expectant mothers and new parents, from financial worries to mental health concerns. “There are all sorts of pressures,” she said.

Challenged on whether the challenges had been exacerbated by cutbacks to Sure Start centres under successive Conservative governments, she said they are not always the right answer – with outreach being a better approach in sparsely-populated rural areas, for example.

Leadsom said she had urged the prime minister to allow her to carry out a review, when he sacked her as business secretary in February’s reshuffle.

“I made a really strong pitch, and Boris was genuinely enthusiastic,” she said. The review is due to report by next January, and will make recommendations to government departments.

It will follow on from an inter-ministerial group Leadsom chaired when she was leader of the House of Commons, under Theresa May.

She said she was “very worried” about the impact of the lockdown on babies and young children, with some face-to-face services scaled back, and unable to rely on parents for help.

“Levelling up” was used as a slogan during the 2019 general election to underline the importance of regenerating regions outside London, and has since been used by ministers to describe the need to tackle other inequalities.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “We are determined to level up the opportunities for children, no matter where they come from or grow up.”

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