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Shortfall in health visitors and school nurses threatens babies’ life chances

The union Unite highlights that workforce numbers are below recommended levels

Ingrid Torjesen

Monday, 14 December 2015

A possible decline in health visitor numbers and a massive shortfall in school nurses could jeopardise the life chances of the estimated 200,000 babies living in ‘complex’ family situations, Unite, the country’s largest union, has warned.

Despite the last government’s pledge for 4,200 extra health visitors, numbers appear to be falling. According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, the number of health visitors in August this year was 11,642 whole-time equivalents (WTEs), but if the government pledge of 4,200 more health visitors had been met the figure should be 12,292 (WTEs) – a shortfall of 650.

This is compounded by the prospect of councils privatising their public health services, such as health visitors, school nurses, drug and alcohol workers and sexual health advisors, says Unite which encompasses the Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association (CPHVA).

Meanwhile there are just 1,189 WTE school nurses for a school-aged population (5-to-19) of 9.4 million in England. A review in 2004 by the then Chief Nursing Officer (England) Sarah Mullally said there should be a full time school nurse for every secondary school and its cluster of primary schools. At the time, there were an estimated 2,500 school nurses. Unite argues that if that recommendation had been implemented, there would now be a total of 6,700 (WTE) school nurses – but currently there is a shortfall of about 5,500.

Unite is calling for the government to reverse funding cuts and help cash-strapped local authorities in England copper-bottom this essential early prevention service.

Unite professional officer for health visiting in England, Dave Munday said: “It is vital that the government removes the so-called ‘sunset’ clause on the five mandated visits that health visitors now make in England.

“This standard needs to be guaranteed after April 2017, otherwise the sun will surely set on the health visiting service as we now know it. In Scotland, there are 12 such mandated visits.

“It is in the first 1,001 days that there is the best chance to turn around the life chances of those children living in difficult family situations. The cost of perinatal mental health and child neglect is already £23 billion a year – and this makes the case for prevention irrefutable.”

“However, what is happening to the health visitor and school nurse workforces does not engender confidence for the future.”

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