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17.08.16

Cuts to health visitors could have ‘irredeemable’ effects on obesity and mental health

Leaders from major healthcare organisations have come together to call on the government to halt deep cuts to health visitor posts in order to keep other problems, such as childhood obesity and mental ill health, from escalating further.

In a joint letter to the Times – signed by the CEOs of 11 health bodies, such as the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Unite, the Royal College of GPs, the RCPCH, the NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau – professionals said cuts to the Health Visitor Implementation Programme is deteriorating public health.

The government’s Health Visitor Implementation Plan invested enough funds to train more than 4,000 health visitors, a job that plays a “vital and unique” role to prevent ill health and promote healthy lifestyles to children.

But five years on, posts are being cut harshly throughout England, with the latest workforce figures showing numbers have been falling since the beginning of the year – including a significant drop of 433 posts just between March and April.

According to the RCN, anecdotal evidence suggests this drop is “just the start of a significant reduction” in the number of these services due to ongoing cuts to local authority public health budgets.

In the letter, the 11 signatories argued the loss of health visitor posts could have “irredeemable consequences” for children and families, while “stunting the progress of several key government priorities”, from obesity and mental health issues in children and adults to promoting social inclusion.

Janet Davies, the chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, added: “Health visitors are simply too important to be forced out by financial concerns. Their role supporting families and children is invaluable and a reduction in services will only lead to more health problems.

“At a time of escalating obesity, rising mental health problems and growing health inequalities, these services have never been so vital. The previous government’s boost to health visiting services was a vital step forward, yet these cuts risk any gains that were made and are a waste of that financial investment.

“Cutting health visiting roles would prove more expensive in the long term by putting added pressure on already overstretched GPs, hospitals and other health services.”

Davies added that it was “no coincidence” that health problems are deteriorating as services shrink, with the government needing to protect funding for vital services lest it put “the health of the nation at stake”.

According to a survey carried out by health union Unite, whose lead professional officer Obi Amadi signed the co-written letter, almost 60% of health visitors also reported big increases in individual workloads compared to the year before. Almost half reported a slump in morale and motivation in the workplace, with the vast majority attributing this to workplace stress.

Almost 90% said they always or ‘frequently’ worked more than their contracted hours (with 62% claiming overtime was unpaid) and 70% recorded ‘frequent’ staff shortages in the last 12 months.

The union’s national officer for health, Sarah Carpenter, commented: “Ministers need to wake-up to the fact that the progress made by the last government with the Health Visitor Implementation Plan, which boosted the workforce by more than 4,000, could be jeopardised with all the adverse impact this would have on families, children and the wider public health agenda.

“Despite indications from health secretary Jeremy Hunt that he wants to keep a firm lid on NHS pay, the argument for a decent pay rise for the NHS workforce, which has seen their income in real terms drop by more than 15%, is irrefutable. This health visitor survey strongly reinforces this case.”

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