I was honoured this week to deliver my first speech to Labour Party Conference as Shadow Secretary of State for Health in order to highlight how the Tories’ ideologically-driven austerity agenda is risking the very future of our health service and public health more generally.
One issue that I mentioned in my speech where the austerity agenda is set to have increasingly negative consequences in the months and years ahead is with regards to health visitors. As I put it in my speech, “it takes a team to deliver great healthcare. This week is Health Visitors week. They do a vital job of work with mothers and families. But they are threatened by Tory cuts to public health”
As the health visitors' profession turns 120 in Britain this year, the future for these staff working through the Tory assault on the NHS and our public services is increasingly under threat, as has been highlighted by this week’s excellent Health Visitors week. As of September 2015 there were 11,895 FTE health visitors in England.
Health visitors are registered nurses or midwives who are promote healthy lifestyles and prevent illness, working with families to give pre-school-age children the best possible start in life. There are also specialist health visitors who focus on at-risk or deprived groups such as perinatal mental health, breastfeeding, domestic abuse or the homeless.
Additionally, health visitors are required to complete additional education and gain a qualification in specialist community public health nursing (at degree or masters level). This additional training enables them to assess the health needs of individuals, families and the wider community, with a view to early intervention.
Health visitors are particularly vulnerable to the Tory cuts agenda because they are now paid for by local authorities.
On the 1st October 2015, the commissioning of health visiting was transferred to local authorities. This followed the earlier transfer of school nurses in April 2013.
At this transfer point, the budgets for health visiting services were also transferred across to the local authority. However, at the same time the Tories have implemented large spending cuts to public health. This included £200 million cuts announced ‘in-year’ in 2015-16, a further £77 million cut in 2016-17 and £84 million cut in 2017-18. Crucially, the funding transferred with health visiting services was not ‘ring fenced’.
These cuts to local authorities’ funding of recent years have fuelled health inequalities across the country, according to a Health Committee report earlier this year.
Health visitors are depended upon by the poor more than the rich, which means cuts to these services are deeply regressive as well as being a false economy that will put more financial pressure on the NHS in the long-term.
According to the aforementioned Health Committee, constitute a “false economy”, which “threaten[s] to undermine the real progress local government has made in improving health and well-being, and tackling inequalities in their communities”.
At the beginning of March 2016, Action for Children, the National Children’s Bureau and The Children’s Society produced a report, ‘Losing in the long run’ which highlighted that between 2000 and 2020, the amount spent by the government on early intervention would be cut by 71%.
Linked to this, health visitors are not only needed to maintain child public health but will also help provide the health infrastructure through which the government intends to implement its long awaited obesity strategy.
I have been pleased to support this week’s Health Visitors’ week. The government must recognise the importance of health workers to communities across Britain and sustain this 120 year old profession.
For more information on #HVWeek see here.