Providers of health visiting services fear they could face funding cuts after the government said it would reduce councils’ public health budgets by £200m.
Senior figures in the sector have said they are worried that the increase in the number of heath visitors over the last four years will be reversed when councils take over commissioning the services in October from NHS England.
Whether councils should be able to target health visiting for cuts is expected to be one key area of the forthcoming consultation on £200m of public health cuts revealed by chancellor George Osborne last week.
The savings were initially described as only affecting services that were “non-NHS”, and not affecting “frontline services”. The £200m must be taken from 2015-16 budgets.
The cuts amount to 7% of the £2.7bn public health budget that is routed to councils from the Department of Health via Public Health England – or just under 6% once health visiting budgets are included.
Health visiting services for young children received significant investment under the coalition government, after it set a target to increase the numbers of health visitors in England by 4,200 to over 12,000 by the end of March this year.
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However, there is no requirement on councils to maintain these numbers. While NHS England has mandated “five key visits” that all families must receive before a child is two and a half, sources in the sector told Nursing Times’ sistertitle Health Service Journal that most areas will currently be commissioning a more comprehensive service.
One source said: “Everyone knows that if you just did the five visits, that’s not enough.”
They expressed fears that any provision beyond the minimum could be vulnerable to cuts.
Tracy Taylor, chief executive of Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust, which provides health visiting services, said she was “very concerned” at the prospect of councils taking over their commissioning.
“There is a danger that the recent work to bring health visitor numbers up to safe levels will be compromised as we have no assurance that these services will not be targeted for savings,” she said.
“The government’s announcement of £200m of new cuts to public health last week adds considerable concern as to the future of universal services for children, and parents and young children are likely to suffer as a result,” she added.
“We are concerned that these cuts could impact on health visitor services”
Nicola Close, chief executive of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said: “We are concerned that these cuts could impact on health visitor services when they come over to local authorities in October.
“These are cuts to the budget that funding for health visitors will be rolled into,” she said.
She added that the cuts were “inconsistent” with the prevention agenda as expressed in NHS England’s Five-Year Forward View, which ministers have publicly backed.
A Department of Health spokeswoman declined to comment on health visitors specifically.
But she refered to a statement issued last week that said the consultation with councils would “decide the best way of delivering the savings that need to be made”.