'No controlling mind' over community nurse workforce planning, as health visitors transferred to councils

Posted On: 
13th March 2017

The transfer of health visitors and school nurses in England to local government sets the scene for further fragmentation of services that families and young children rely on, Unite, the country’s largest union, has warned.

The union is concerned that, according to latest NHS figures, the number of health visitors and school nurses has slumped, while there appears to be no body collating the total number of community nurses now working for local councils.

Unite lead professional officer Obi Amadi said: “The lack of an overall ‘controlling mind’ about the number of health visitors and school nurses working for local government will hamper workforce planning and lead to a fragmentation of services for families with babies and young children.”

Unite is concerned that health visitors and school nurses face a triple-pronged attack on their profession – from the NHS financial crisis generally; that ‘public health’ is now run by cash-strapped local authorities; and the fall-out from the 44 Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) for England.

The union, which embraces the Community and Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association, is organising a parliamentary lobby of MPs by concerned health visitors and school nurses in London on Wednesday 26 April.

According to the latest provisional NHS workforce statistics (October 2016), there were 9,410 health visitors (whole time equivalents/WTE) in the NHS, compared with 10,309 the year before. There were 2,561 WTEs in the school nurse workforce in the NHS, compared with 2,725 the year before.

The figures from NHS Digital show the number of health visitors working in the NHS in England plummeted by 8.7 per cent (899 WTE posts) between October 2015 and October 2016 and school nurses  dropped by six per cent (164 WTE posts) during the same period.

Obi Amadi added: “NHS health visitor numbers have been dropping almost consistently from month to month since October 2015, when the workforce was at its largest size recorded in more than a decade.

“Families with young children and babies are facing a ticking health time bomb because of the sorry and sad decline in health visitor and school nurse numbers – this can’t be right for a strong preventative public health policy.

“The government needs to secure the future of community nursing by increasing and ringfencing money for these professions and the vital work with families that they carry out on a daily basis.

“The ‘public health’ purse strings are now held by local councils, struggling with unrelenting cuts from Whitehall. While, in theory, public health budgets are ringfenced, in practice, council bosses can interpret what constitutes ‘public health’ in flexible ways.

“What we fear is that overall workforce planning for health visiting and school nursing will fall between the NHS and local authorities – such a split can’t be the best way forward and would be another example of further NHS fragmentation.

“Finally, the spectre at the feast is the STP programme which, we believe, is the latest Trojan Horse aimed at privatising NHS services for corporate profit.”