A major cross-party report out today highlighting the importance of children’s early years development should serve as a warning to the government about the problems being stored up as a result of its “financial disdain” for public health, Unite has said.
The comments come ahead of today’s re-launch of the 1001 Critical Days Manifesto, which emphasises critical period for a child’s development up to the age of two.
It also estimates nearly 200,000 babies are living in ”complex” family situations, where there are problems such as substance misuse, mental illness or domestic violence.
“The quality early years care is vital in the battle against the growing inequality in the UK – and ought to be given critical attention by government”
The union claimed the potential future decline in the health visitor workforce as a result of cuts to local authority public health grants, alongside an existing shortage of school nurses threatened “essential” early prevention services.
Despite the last government almost boosting health visitor numbers in England by around 50% to nearly 12,300, the union pointed to the fact it just missed the target, claiming it had left the profession short of more than 600 registrants.
To help protect health visitor numbers, the union called for councils to be mandated beyond 2017 to commission services that provide at least five health visiting checks before the age of two and a half.
Currently, local councils are only subject to this legislation until the end of March.
“What is happening to the health visitor and school nurse workforces does not engender confidence for the future”
Meanwhile, school nursing in England “faces an even bleaker future”, with just under 1,200 nurses based on the latest official Health and Social Care Information Centre figures, said the union.
Unite noted numbers had more than halved in the past decade – from 2,500 in 2004.
It said numbers should instead be at 6,700 based on a recommendation from a report at the time by then chief nursing officer for England Sarah Mullally, which said there should be a full-time school nurse for every secondary school and its cluster of primary schools.
The union called for public health cuts to be reversed and for the government to ensure cash-strapped local authorities can invest in early prevention services.
Unite national officer for health, Barrie Brown, said: “The quality early years care is vital in the battle against the growing inequality in the UK – and ought to be given critical attention by government.”
“The next time that the Tory government crows about its alleged cash boost for the NHS – the problems it has created over its financial disdain for ‘public health’ are already lapping at its doorstep,” he said.
Unite professional officer for health visiting in England, Dave Munday, added: “It is in the first 1,001 days that there is the best chance to turn around the life chances of those children living in difficult family situations.
“The cost of perinatal mental health and child neglect is already £23 billion a year – and this makes the case for prevention irrefutable,” he said. “However, what is happening to the health visitor and school nurse workforces does not engender confidence for the future.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “We are absolutely committed to making sure every child has the very best start in life.
”We have invested in a massive expansion of the health visitor programme and there are an extra 1,000 in training who will be able to join the workforce soon.”
“Local councils will receive over £16 billion to spend on public health over the next five years…The best local councils have shown that fantastic results can be achieved whilst making savings,” she added.