Declining numbers of health visitors working in the NHS in England are leaving services at risk, the Labour Party has warned, as new analysis highlights wide regional variation in the number of young children receiving checks.
The latest official figures from NHS Digital show there were 8,588 health visitors working in the NHS in June, compared to 9,491 the year before – representing a drop of 9.5%, LGC’s sister title Nursing Times reports.
At the same time, children in some parts of the country – sometimes up to 97% in certain regions – did not receive a visit from a health visitor at the required point in their development over the summer, according to Public Health England statistics.
Local authorities, which have been responsible for commissioning health visiting services since October 2015, are legally required to ensure all families receive five visits at specific points before their child reaches the age of two and a half.
But the latest PHE statistics, for the three months up to July, show 12% of babies in England missed out on the visit that is supposed to take place within the first 14 days of being born.
This varied between regions, ranging from almost all babies – 99% – being checked after 14 days in Enfield, to just 25% in North Somerset.
Meanwhile, Labour noted that in London only around half of all children had been seen by a health visitor at the point they reached one year of age.
But again this varied between areas, with the worst performing borough, Greenwich LBC, having only seen 3% of children at this point – meaning only 34 out of 1,144 children were visited by a health visitor.
According to the PHE data, the final check at two and a half years of age was being carried out for 90% of babies in the North East region, but among only 71% in the South West and just 61% in London.
As first revealed by Nursing Times, NHS Digital data shows that the number of NHS health visitors has been steadily reducing since a high point of 10,309 in October 2015.
Prior to this, there had been an increase due to a Conservative Party pledged to boost the size of the workforce, by around 50% between 2011 and 2015, following concerns about the dwindling workforce.
The Labour Party highlighted that the number of health visitors currently in the NHS workforce was now at around the same level seen in December 2013.
It noted that, at the same time, there was a “huge” variation across England in the number of health visitor checks young children were receiving and accused the government’s funding cuts of “dismantling the country’s public health system”.
At a conference on Tuesday, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The new analysis we are revealing today is a damning indictment of the government’s commitment to tackling child ill health.”
He added: “The simple truth is the Tory government’s staggering cuts are dismantling the country’s public health system, failing some of the most vulnerable in our society and leaving children’s services at risk.
Third of health visitor course places empty last year
Only two thirds of health visitor training places were used by the end of the last academic year, while problems filling school nursing and district nursing courses also continued up until the summer.
An official report by workforce planning body Health Education England has revealed just 539 nurses took up health visitor training out of an expected 817 in 2016-17, meaning only 66% of places were used, LGC’s sister title Nursing Times reports.
The situation is worse than was originally expected. HEE predicted in December it would be able to fill 75% of the places, despite slow recruitment. The problems have continued since the year before, when 15% of health visitor training places were left vacant.
All other funded specialist nursing courses for last year also failed to recruit as many nurses as planned, according to the report, which forms part of HEE board papers that were discussed at the body’s council meeting yesterday.
School nursing courses had 22% of training places left empty – meaning only 222 were filled out of a possible 284. Around 16% of district nursing training places were not used, meaning 416 were filled out of a target of 496.