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Health visitor staffing threatens to 'crumble' NHS child health strategy

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The government’s long-delayed national child health strategy has proved vague on how many NHS health visitors should be recruited if the chronic decline in their number is to be reversed

As reported in Nursing Times last week, health visitors in some areas are struggling with caseloads of more than 1,000 and morale has dipped in the wake of cases such as Baby P.

The Department of Health said in its new child health strategy for England, published last week, that it would increase the number of health visitors. However, it was unable to tell Nursing Times how many new health visitor posts would be needed, claiming this was a matter for local decision-makers – in stark contrast to national targets it has previously set for recruiting community matrons.

A DH spokesperson said the government had ‘not got a figure for how many health visitors there will be’.

‘It is something that will be locally determined according to need and the DH will be working with the local NHS to promote this,’ he said.

The strategy restated the intention that each of the 2,500 Sure Start children’s centres would have a named health visitor – something originally announced last June in the Child Health Promotion programme.

The government hopes to establish a further 1,000 of these centres by 2010.

The strategy, which has been delayed since last May, is intended to provide a ‘long-term vision of a 21st-century children’s health service aimed at improving the health and well-being of all children’.

But Karen Reay, Unite/CPHVA national officer for health, said: ‘The whole purpose of this plan will crumble if there are not enough trained and experienced health visitors implementing a universal programme of assessment and care for families and communities.’

She said the union was ‘concerned’ that the strategy was ‘vague on the numbers needed’ and that she would be seeking ‘ministerial clarification on what the new children’s plan means in terms of the immediate employment of health visitors’.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley restated the Conservatives’ pledge to ‘double’ the number of health visitors if his party won the next election.

The strategy did announce that the experimental Family Nurse Partnership programme was to be rolled out across England.

The programme, based on a US model, involves regular home visits made by a specialist nurse to first-time parents from low-income backgrounds until their child reaches the age of two.

The government first set up pilot sites for the programme in 2006 and hopes to take it across England over the next 10 years. It intends to increase the current 30 sites to 70 by 2011.

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