Legislation that requires all families with babies to receive five health visitor checks before their child reaches two and a half years old is to remain in place in England, the government has announced.
The law was brought in when local authorities took over responsibility for commissioning health visiting services from the NHS in October 2015, but was due to expire at the end of March 2017.
“Health visitors support families to give children the best possible start in life, that’s why we have taken strong action to making these services mandatory”
It was designed to ensure the recent boost to health visitor numbers – following a Conservative party pledge in 2010 to increase the size of the workforce by almost 50% – was maintained after commissioning transferred to councils.
But recent NHS statistics, analysed by Nursing Times, have shown the number of health visitors working in the NHS has in fact fallen by around 9% in the year since commissioning transferred.
Senior nurses warned that if the legislation were removed, cash-strapped local authorities would be even more likely to cut public health budgets which could lead to further health visitor job losses.
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Public health minister Nicola Blackwood has today confirmed the legislation will continue with immediate effect from the start of April. It follows a review of the legislation by arms-length body Public Health England at the end of last year.
A Department of Health spokeswoman confirmed to Nursing Times that, unlike the current legislation, when the law continues from April it will no longer be subject to a “sunset clause” - which would have meant it expired by a certain date.
“Health visitors support families to give children the best possible start in life, that’s why we have taken strong action to making these services mandatory across the country,” said Ms Blackwood in a statement.
Professor Viv Bennett
“We have given local authorities £16bn between 2016 and 2021 to spend on public health,” she added.
PHE chief nurse professor Viv Bennett said: “These reviews are important opportunities to support mothers’ mental health, discuss immunisations, breastfeeding and healthy diet options for babies and provide referral to any specialist services if necessary.
“We are very pleased that the government has decided to continue to mandate these vital services,” she said. ”We are committed to supporting local government to ensure these checks are given to every young child.”
Cheryll Adams, executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting, said: “This is superb news for children, and for society due to the long term public health impacts of early help for families.
“What is essential though is that its a health visitor who provides the core assessments as part of their universal services,” she said.
“Five contacts should be the absolute minimum number of health visitor contacts, almost every family will require many more,” she said. “There are gaps of many months between these contacts and life in families changes from day-to-day, regular reviews are important to identify need early before it has an impact on the health of children and families.”
She added: “Now that the mandation has been agreed the next step is to reinvest into public health so that local authorities can ensure that every family has access to the best possible early years services.”
Izzi Seccombe, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “Councils recognise the importance of the early years and are committed to ensuring that all children have the best start in life.
“Today’s announcement highlights the importance of early years support and the life-long impact it has on a child’s health and wellbeing,” she said.
“Government cuts to councils’ public health grants of nearly 10% – approximately £530m over five years – threaten to undermine the good work councils are doing to ensure all children have the best start in life,” said Ms Seccombe. “If councils are to continue to deliver mandatory health checks the government must commit to providing ongoing funding to support this vital service.
“Government must also take this opportunity to review all mandated services and ensure local flexibility so that decisions about future funding can be made in line with local needs,” she added.