The number of health visitors in England has slumped by about a third over the last four years, according to analysis of NHS data by Labour.
As of July this year, there were 6,931 full-time equivalent health visitors in England, says the party, which is a drop of 3,378 since the peak of 10,309 in October 2015, at the end of the national health visitor programme set up by the coalition government in 2011 to boost numbers.
The coalition’s programme said health visitors were crucial to ensuring families got off to the best possible start, going into homes before and after births to help, reassure and pick up problems. “Getting this right can affect the child’s physical and mental health and wellbeing, their readiness to learn and their ability to thrive later in life. This matters for the child, their family, local communities, and our wider economy,” said the Department of Health’s launch document in 2011.
Funding for health visitors was shifted to local authorities as part of an NHS reorganisation and became another call on the public health budget, which has been affected by significant cuts. In June, the Institute of Health Visiting published a position paper, voicing concern “about the quality and effectiveness of the service that families are now receiving”. More than a quarter of health visitors (27%) were each responsible for 500 or more children, it said.
Labour says its analysis of NHS England data shows that the number of women who did not get a visit at 28 weeks or more of pregnancy increased by more than 6,000 between 2017-18 and 2018-19. New birth visits were delayed – 11% nationally did not take place within the first 14 days.
Across England, 15% of babies missed out on their six- to eight-week review last year, rising to 29% in London. More than 23% of children did not get their one-year review within the first 12 months of life, rising to 39% in London.
Labour has promised to introduce a further mandated health visit at about three to four months after birth. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary , said it would recruit more than 4,000 extra health visitors and school nurses if it got into power as well as put £40bn into the NHS. “You can’t trust the Tories with our NHS. The Conservatives used to boast of their commitment to increase the number of health visitors, yet we have actually seen health visitors in the NHS cut by a third in over three years, with patchy provision of visits. Babies and women deserve better at such a crucial point in their lives.”
Luciana Berger, the Liberal Democrats’ health, wellbeing and social care spokeswoman, said the figures were particularly concerning as the country entered winter, putting more people at risk.
“It is well known that the number of health visitors has fallen under the Conservative government over the last four years. The Conservatives’ policy on Brexit is driving away EU staff from working in the NHS, and has also seen a fall in the number of nurses from the EU joining the NHS,” she said.
“Liberal Democrats would stop Brexit to support our NHS workforce, introduce an NHS recruitment strategy and invest £7bn a year extra in health and social care.”
The Conservative party did not respond to a request for comment.