The shadow health and social care secretary has today hit out at what he described as “savage” cuts to health visitor and school nurse numbers in England.
Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth cited research showing that the number of health visitors have declined by 8% over the past year, while school nurses have been slashed by nearly a quarter since May 2010.
“Savage cuts to health visitors, school nurses and community nursery nurses is another betrayal of our children”
Mr Ashworth is due to highlight the decline in the workforce in a speech today at the union Unite’s Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association (CPHVA) annual conference in Bournemouth.
He will say: “Health visitors play a crucial role in caring for vulnerable children and their mothers from the very beginning of life. We know that early intervention and the first 1,001 days of life are critical in a child’s development, a fact this government is blatantly turning a blind eye towards.
“Yet savage cuts to health visitors, school nurses and community nursery nurses is another betrayal of our children,” Mr Ashworth is due to tell delegates.
“The truth is that the government’s unprecedented cuts are dismantling the country’s public health system, failing some of the most vulnerable in our society and leaving children’s services at risk,” he will add.
Labour’s new analysis of data suggest that health visitor numbers are at their lowest level since 2012, and have fallen from 8,588 in June 2017 to 7,910 in June this year.
“There is an urgent need for renewed investment in health visitors, school nurses and community nurses”
The party claims this decline in numbers had led to “huge variation in the standard care which children receive around the country”.
For example, it noted that in Wakefield 99.6% of babies were seen within 14 days, but in North Somerset it was just 44.9%.
Similarly, it said 90.1% of babies in the North East received a two-and-a-half-year check, compared to just 76.9% in the West Midlands and 62.6% in London.
Mr Ashworth is due to reiterate Labour’s pledge to commit an additional £25m to introduce an additional mandated health visit for children at three to four months.
Figures analysed by Labour also show a 24.7% cut in NHS school nurses between May 2010 and June 2018, from 2,987 to 2,248, and a 15.4% cut in NHS community nursery nurses from 2,229 to 1,885 over the same period.
The party highlighted a Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health report released earlier this week that showed child health outcomes in Britain were trailing behind most other high-income countries on obesity rates, tooth decay and mortality.
Mr Ashworth is set to challenge the government to “put children first” in the NHS long-term plan.
“The government is sleepwalking into a bleak future for children and young people’s health”
Responding to Labour’s investigation, Sarah Carpenter, national officer for health at Unite, called the figures a “serious wake-up call”.
She added: “The damning evidence from the Labour party further underlines what we have been saying for some time – that there is an urgent need for renewed investment in health visitors, school nurses and community nurses.”
Meanwhile, Sue Warner, a member of the Royal College of Nursing’s council and a health visitor, said: “These figures show the government is sleepwalking into a bleak future for children and young people’s health.
“Only this week RCPCH warned of increased infant mortality, poor child mental health and obesity if we don’t act now,” she said.
“It’s clear health visitors and school nurses are key to tackling these issues, by identifying the health and care needs of young children, and supporting and educating their families,” she said. ”But month after month this vital workforce dwindles, leaving children without the support and care they need.
“If health visitors and school nurses are not available when families need them, they may be more likely to book a GP appointment or visit A&E when they don’t need to, putting more pressure on these overstretched services,” she warned.
Ms Warner said the government should introduce a national health workforce strategy backed by safe staffing legislation.
Not the first warning on public health nursing
Concerns have been growing in recent years about a fall in the number of health visitors and school nurses, as reported by Nursing Times:
- Children ‘at risk’ from cuts to public health nursing roles
- RCN warns of risks from fall in health visitor and school nurse numbers
- Exclusive: ‘Grave concerns’ for hard-won health visitor gains
- Fears health visitors will be target in £200m public health cuts
- Exclusive: NHS loses 9% of public health nurses in a year
- Government’s green paper ‘fails to address falling school nurse numbers’
- Children ‘unsafe in classroom’ due to school nurse cuts
- School nurses ‘undermined’ by heavy workloads
- Fewer school nurses caring for rising number of pupils
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “Every child deserves the best start in life – that’s why they are offered five mandated health visitor checks before they are two and a half, and further support is provided as children grow up.
“Improving the health of our children will be pivotal in our long term plan for the NHS, which we’re backing with additional funding of an extra £20.5bn a year by 2023-24,” she added.
Increasing the number of health visitors was a key Conservative Party pledge in the run-up to the 2010 election that resulted in the coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.
The coalition government ultimately just missed its target to recruit an extra 4,200 health visitors by the end of March 2015, though community nurse leaders have hailed the rise in staff numbers.