Leaked council documents have exposed plans to cut as many as 31 full-time health visiting posts in Suffolk by September.
Internal documents have revealed that Suffolk County Council intends to slash the number of health visitors working in the area through a combination of redundancies and not filling vacancies.
“Cuts to this important service for families will make it more difficult for Suffolk to achieve its objectives”
The proposed move comes after the local authority recently won the contract to provide healthy child services across the county.
As part of this, the council is “reviewing the work of health visitors and how this service can be improved”, a spokeswoman for the local authority confirmed.
According to the documents, seen by the Observer newspaper, the plans to reduce its 120-strong workforce by as many as 31 full-time posts, will save the council £1m from its health visiting, school nursing and family nurse partnership services.
It reported on Sunday that the council wanted to reduce the role of health visitors, so they no longer carried out three of the five checks of mother-and-baby health. Under new plans, health visitors would focus on the most vulnerable families and nurses would instead undertake the three checks, it stated.
Suffolk County Council is being forced to change the way it provides services for children and young people, according to the Observer, because its public health grant has been cut by £5.47m since 2015-26.
“We’re currently consulting staff on proposals to deliver the service within the funding that’s available”
A spokeswoman at the council said it was using its recently won contract for the provision as an opportunity to “remodel and improve” the services for 0-19-year-olds.
In a statement, she said: “We’re currently consulting staff on proposals to deliver the service within the funding that’s available.
“This includes reviewing the work of health visitors and how this service can be improved,” the spokeswoman added.
A staff consultation closed on Friday and the council is now analysing responses, she noted.
She added: “Ofsted recently rated Suffolk’s children’s services as ‘outstanding’ and in that spirit we will continue to provide high quality services to keep children and young people in Suffolk safe and well.”
As part of its takeover, the council also earmarked plans to increase the school nursing provision by 32% and “build on the skill mix” of those working with children and families, and improve the digital offer, with a new helpline for mothers who have questions or concerns.
“Health visitors provide an invaluable service helping parents to give children the very best start in life”
Trade union, Unite, has spoken out over the controversial plans and has branded the proposed changes as “highly damaging and counterproductive for Suffolk families with young children”.
It is calling for proposals to be scrapped and is due to meet with county council bosses on Thursday to urge them to reconsider their plans.
Unite regional officer, Mark Jaina, said: “We think that these proposals are motivated by reckless cost-cutting and, if they were to go-ahead, it would badly affect thousands of Suffolk families, many of them in vulnerable circumstances.”
The union accused the council of trying to “sneak these plans under the radar” without consulting all staff side organisations, including Unite.
Mr Jaina also raised concerns over the proposal to replace health visitor roles with staff nurses.
“There is already a chronic shortage of nursing staff, an estimated 40,000, across the country, so we are very concerned that the council will not be able to fill many of the roles it will need to advertise for,” he said.
“We have consulted with many of our members from Bury St Edmunds to Beccles and have prepared a fully detailed response to the proposals for tomorrow’s meeting when we will urge the management to ditch their flawed and misguided plans,” said Mr Jaina.
“We do not accept that the cuts should come from an outstanding service to 0-5-year-olds and their parents and guardians,” he said.
“It would have serious implications for the welfare of 0-5 year olds throughout Suffolk – and the public needs to be fully acquainted with the adverse implications of what the future holds,” he added.
In wake of the leaked documents, Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Dr Dan Poulter, has also warned that cuts to the health visiting workforce would make it more difficult for Suffolk to “achieve its objectives” for children’s services.
“Health visitors provide an invaluable service helping parents to give children the very best start in life with advice on matters from parenting skills to healthy eating,” he said.
“Cuts to this important service for families will make it more difficult for Suffolk to achieve its objectives in delivering many other of its important objectives including reducing childhood obesity,” he added.
“We need to recognise that local authority budgets are under pressure, but until recently, the health visitor budget was ring-fenced by central government,” said Dr Poulter, who is a former health minister.
“Now that funding ring-fence has been removed, and local authorities control the budget themselves, many councils are choosing to cut health visiting services, which is to the detriment of many families, particularly those in the greatest need of support,” he added.
Dr Poulter warned that “worryingly”, many councils like Suffolk lack the skills to effectively commission public health services.
“As a result, we have seen a reduction in the provision of sexual health, drug, and alcohol addiction services in many areas,” he said. “Sadly, it looks as though health visiting services and the families they care for are now also suffering.”
“I hope Suffolk will reflect upon this decision, but it is also time for the government to acknowledge that the 2012 health and social care act needs to be reviewed and health visiting services put back under the control of NHS commissioners before it is too late,” said Dr Poulter.
Dr Poulter’s call follows confirmation from the government last week, that the responsibility for commissioning key public health services, such as health visiting, will stay with local authorities.
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The decision came after a departmental review found local authorities were “best placed” to lead public health services.
The review followed on from a commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to revisit the controversial decision to transfer the commissioning of public health services from the NHS to local government in the wake of policy reforms in 2012.
Despite the decision to keep public services with local authorities, the Department of Health and Social Care has told the NHS to work more closely with councils on organising and delivering these services.