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Jonathan Ashworth MP: The Government is failing health visitors and the children they work with

3 min read

Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth calls for a 21st Century public health service in which no child is left behind. 

Ahead of the 2010 election, a key policy for the newly compassionate Conservatives was to boost the number of health visitors in England.

At the time, Theresa May backed the pledge, criticising Labour’s record and promising that the Tories would “increase the number of health visitors, who give valued support to women who have just given birth”.

As Prime Minister, however, Theresa May has overseen a huge decline in the health visiting workforce which has undermined the commitments made under the Coalition administration. 

Since the end of the national Health Visitor Programme in 2015, staff numbers and training places have tailed off. In June 2017 there were just over eight and a half thousand health visitors working in the NHS. Health visitor numbers are now at their lowest level since December 2013. 

Since June 2016 there has been a fall of 902, over 75 a month. At the same rate, numbers will fall below 8000 by February of next year, entirely eliminating the progress made by the national Health Visitor Programme.

Today I’m meeting with the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association in Cardiff for their annual conference, and my commitment is that Labour would reverse these changes and put health visiting at the heart of our strategy to improve the nation’s public health.

Babies born now could live into the 22nd Century and it is vital they are given the best start in life. Health visiting teams are best placed to provide the expert advice, support and interventions to all families.

But a key failing of the current Government’s approach has been to hand health visiting services to local authorities, but then to take away so much of their resources.

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.

The Institute of Health Visiting’s most recent “State of Health Visiting Survey” said 85% of health visitors said their workload has increased over the past two years. 

One quarter of the babies born in the UK do not receive mandatory check-ups from health visitors during the first two years of their lives and a fifth of babies do not receive the recommended reviews after they turn one.

Just as the last Labour Government had as its driving mission to eliminate child poverty, so I want to see a laser like focus on improving child health and well-being. Central to our strategy will be more health visitors in every community.

In recent weeks I had the privilege of shadowing a health visitor working with some of the most vulnerable young mothers and babies in deprived communities.I’ve seen at first-hand health visitors going the extra mile for families. When I was on this visit I was passed a note that a local mum had written. This mother wrote she had always dreamed of a second baby but then after the birth of her daughter she felt guilty about lacking motivation, felt detached and panicked about what would otherwise would be routine aspects of life. 

A health visitor worked with this mum over the following weeks. This mum said of her health visitor that “she turned things around and helplessness turned to hope”. She said in her letter: “my heath visitor literally came and rescued me”.

It’s a wonderful story and a reminder of how central health visitors are to supporting every mother and baby. Labour’s commitment is that we will work with health visitors to build a 21st Century public health service in which no child is left behind. 

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