The minister responsible for health visiting has hit back at warnings that a key government recruitment target might not be reached early next year.
In an interview with Nursing Times, health minister Dr Dan Poulter said he was “confident” that the goal of creating an additional 4,200 health visitors would be reached next year and that it would eliminate the postcode lottery around health visiting services.
Investment in additional training for existing health visitors and increasing the workforce from 8,092 in 2010 to 12,292 by April 2015 would restore universal access to services for families with children under the age of five, he said.
“Local authorities are very close to the communities they look after. It’s absolutely the right place longer term for health visitors to be working”
His comments follow concerns raised in Nursing Times last month that it would be “touch and go” as to whether the government would meet the 4,200 target, which originated in a Tory pre-election pledge and was subsequently set out in the 2011 Health visitor implementation plan.
Dr Poulter described the expansion of the health visiting workforce as “the single biggest programme to improve the health outcomes and life chances of children and families in a generation”.
He said the situation four years ago was “completely unacceptable”, when some deprived areas of the country had just 60% coverage for health visiting services.
When asked by Nursing Times how the government would ensure health visitor levels did not decline again after 2015, he said a “key priority” for the new training body Health Education England would be to match the workforce with the future size of the population.
“We actually have enough to just about keep your heads above the water while your feet are going mental underneath”
He added that he was “absolutely confident” that local authorities were ready to take on the responsibility of commissioning public health services for the under-fives, which they will do from October 2015 under government plans.
“Local authorities are very close to the communities they look after. It’s absolutely the right place longer term for health visitors to be working,” said Dr Poulter.
Concerns were raised earlier this month at the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association that rules for councils on commissioning health visitor services were not tight enough.
Speakers at the conference also warned that even if the recruitment target was met next year, it would still mean the workforce were only big enough.
The CPHVA, which is part of the union Unite, has called for health visitor funding to be protected over the coming years.
Unite professional officer Dave Munday told the conference: “We actually have enough to just about keep your heads above the water while your feet are going mental underneath.
“We have to be really clear that early invention and prevention are the quickest things to cut when things get a bit tight and it is unacceptable to cut health visiting or school nursing anywhere across any of the four countries,” he said.