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Health visitors appeal to shadow health secretary over ‘serious’ risk from budget cuts

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Health visitors and school nurses have urged politicians to realise the “serious” risk to nurse jobs posed by cuts to public health budgets in England, and underlined the need for national minimum staffing standards in the community.

They also pointed to the ongoing threat of redundancies as services were reconfigured by local authority commissioners, and the potential for nurses to be replaced with support workers.

“I can’t stress how much we want to raise the risk to health visitors and how we are being cut”

Health visitor

The concerns were raised at the Community Practitioners and Health Visitor’s Association annual conference on Wednesday, where delegates called on shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth to pressure the government to put a stop to budget cuts.

Nurses highlighted to Mr Ashworth, who was speaking at the conference, that they had a “crucial” role in detecting mental health issues among children, and the important wide-ranging elements to their jobs – from identifying health problems to safeguarding from abuse.

However, they warned of the current financial threat to the continuation of their roles in the future.

“I can’t stress how much we want to raise the risk to health visitors and how we are being cut,” a health visitor from Staffordshire told the MP for Leicester South.

“I wanted to let you know how serious this is and how it’s across the country – certainly in England,” she added.

She noted the importance of nurses working in the community and their access to families. “We are the only ones that visit people in their homes and really see what conditions people are living in,” she said.

“It would help us if there were some nationally agreed standards…that specify caseloads”

Health visitor 

Another health visitor, from North Yorkshire, highlighted the lack of guidance for commissioners about recommended patient caseloads, and questioned why last year NHS England decided to halt the work on nurse staffing being carried out by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

“It would help us if there were some nationally agreed standards for managers of community services or commissioners – for everybody in healthcare – to follow that specify nurse to patient ratios and caseload standards for health visitors, school nurses, nursery nurses, [and] nurses working in the acute sector,” he told the shadow health secretary.

Responding to the concerns, Mr Ashworth said it did not make sense for the government to be cutting back on public health budgets while at the same time repeating the “mantra” that more care was required in the community.

“I believe you as a sector are absolutely vital to decreasing demands on the NHS. So it is a false economy to be cutting back health visitors,” he told the audience in Birmingham.

He noted the “important point” made by delegates about national staffing guidelines and said further discussion about the issue was required.

“I believe you as a sector are absolutely vital to decreasing demands on the NHS”

Jonathan Ashworth

In his speech earlier, Mr Ashworth attacked the government’s decision to reduce public health budgets, noting that nurses in the community were the “first port of call” for detecting health needs and decreased demand on wider services.

“When we talk about efficiencies in the health service or in public health sector and the need to save money, it strikes me that investing in health visitors, school nurses and community nurses is one of the most efficient uses of public money,” he said to a round of applause.

“It makes no sense to me for the government on the one hand to say it wants to improve the public health of the nation and reduce demand on the NHS, and then on the other hand cut the public health budgets, cut local authority budgets that lead to a decrease in posts that will in turn decrease demand on the NHS,” he said.

Mr Ashworth later added that it also “makes no sense” for the government to say it wants more home-grown clinicians while also removing student nurse bursaries.

“A Labour government will reverse the decision to scrap bursaries for student nurses, midwives and allied health professionals,” he said, to another round of applause.

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