Public health minister Anne Milton has admitted she is “disappointed” by recent figures suggesting a decline in the number of health visitors working in England.
Data from the NHS Information Centre showed number had fallen in seven out of the 10 strategic health authority regions over the past year.
Last week Nursing Times revealed at least part of the decline is due to SHAs and primary care trusts including qualified health visitors not working in clinical posts or non health visitors working as health visitors. The Department of Health is conducting a “data cleansing” exercise to identify the true figure.
In a speech to the Unite Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association Conference former district nurse Ms Milton said achieving the government’s ambition of having an extra 4,200 health visitors in post by 2015 would be “slow and laborious”.
She said: “I was really disappointed at the recent figures showing less health visitors than we hoped… I am under no illusion that we definitely need to work harder with the SHAs and PCTs to get more health visitors on the ground.”
Ms Milton told delegates at the she had been “assured” that jobs would be available for the 1,300 nurses beginning health visiting courses this year.
Asked by a delegate how she could be sure the drive to fund more health visitors would not mean the loss of other community nursing posts, Ms Milton accepted the public sector plays “games” but said the NHS Commissioning Board, which will be responsible for commissioning posts from 2013 until 2015, would be “pivotal” in making sure that didn’t happen.
Ms Milton was also asked about plans to increase contributions to the NHS pension and expect staff to work longer.
She said: “Nobody’s attacking pensions… all existing pension contributions and rates will be maintained. There is negotiation going on.”
However, speaking to Nursing Times after the speech, Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, who has been involved in pension talks with the government, said the minister had revealed her “distance from the issues” of both pensions and health visitor numbers.
She added: “The government haven’t moved one millimetre [on pension negotiations]… It feels like an ideological attack.”