Cuts to health visitors could have ‘devastating impact’ on young families
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A Suffolk MP has voiced fears that plans being considered to cut the number of health visitors in the county could have a significant impact on families.
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dr Dan Poulter has urged councillors and officers to look again at the issue - which he fears will also have a knock-on effect for the authority's priorities and objectives.
It is understood that Suffolk County Council is considering cutting 31 of its 120 health visitors - most in Ipswich and east Suffolk - to save around £1million on its budget.
In future, health visitors' workload would be cut to allow them to focus on the most vulnerable familes, while nurses would carry out other health checks and duties.
The council though has not yet made its proposals public, though it is understood the changes could see some health visitors made redundant and vacancies not being filled.
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Dr Poulter served as health minister in the coalition government and pushed through the priority of increasing the number of health visitors nationwide from 8,000 to 12,000 to help families. Previously health visitors had only been able to reach 70% of families in need. In Suffolk, this included extra posts for more deprived areas of Ipswich, Lowestoft and Felixstowe, where previously there had been too few.
The cuts, if approved, will push the service back to where it was when the coalition took office.
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Dr Poulter said: "As an NHS doctor, on matters that affect the health and well being of patients, I have a duty to speak honestly, and set aside both national and local party political considerations when I believe people's health may be detrimentally affected.
"Health visitors provide an invaluable service helping parents to give children the very best start in life with advice on matters from parenting skills to healthy eating.
"Cuts to this important service for families will make it more difficult for suffolk to achieve its objectives in delivering many other of its Important objectives including reducing childhood obesity.
"Worryingly, many councils like Suffolk lack the skills to effectively commission public health services particularly in the context of global budgetary pressures. As a result, we have seen a reduction in the provision of sexual health, drug, and alcohol addiction services in many areas.
"Sadly, it looks as though health visiting services and the families they care for are now also suffering. I hope Suffolk will reflect upon this decision, but it is also time for the Government to acknowledge that the 2012 health and social care act needs to be reviewed and health visiting services put back under the control of NHS Commissioners before it is too late."
What do health visitors do?
Health visitors provide vital advice, invaluable guidance and help to families, especially working with those with newborns. Help includes parenting skills, breastfeeding advice, signposting services and actvities, early years physical and emotional development, offer parents support with their mental health, and also nutrition and meals advice to tackle childhood obesity - their work bringing long-term benefits to prevent obesity, family break down and violence issues, saving councils money across many departments.
Until 2012 health visitors had been a NHS funded and provided service, but an the Health and Social Care Act 2012 moved to the service to county councils.
Funding for the service is understood to have been ring-fenced until 2017 to protect the service, especially with such a push having been made to provide and train 4,000 extra health visitors between 2012 and 2015.
Now the funding is no longer believed to be ring-fenced it means councils can cut the service.
Dr Poulter said: "We need to recognise that local authority budgets are under pressure, but until recently, the health visitor budget was ring-fenced by central government. Now that funding ring-fence has been removed, and local authorities control the budget themselves, many councils are choosing to cut health visiting services, which is to the detriment of many families, particularly those in the greatest need of support."
Councillor Kim Clements, Labour spokesperson for Women and Equalities at Suffolk County Council, said: "As a young mother to two small children, I know how invaluable health visitors are to families. These services are already stretched, so I am really concerned that these deep cuts will drive the situation to breaking point.
"If the number of vital development checks carried out by health visitors are reduced, it could mean the difference between picking up a developmental issue or completely missing it altogether.
"Health visitors play a vital role in the mental health of new mothers all over Suffolk, and are often the people who discover postnatal depression, PTSD and even psychosis. Some mothers will only see another adult when their health visitor checks in.
"I would hate to see the devastating effect on mothers and their young children, if this service was to be reduced even further."
Sarah Barber, an Ipswich Borough councillor and a children's nurse at Ipswich Hospital, said: "Health visitors offer such a crucial service for families, providing trusted and expert support that you simply cannot get online or over the phone.
"You simply cannot replicate the specialism of a health visitor in the way that Suffolk County Council are proposing - if they then follow through with their cuts to children's centres, it could create a cocktail of disaster for young families.
"These will all add even more pressure onto GP and A&E services which are already bursting at the seams."
What does Suffolk County Council say:
A spokesperson for Suffolk County Council said: "We are very proud of the care and support we offer to children and their families in Suffolk.
"Our children's services were recently rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted and in the report our staff were praised for the 'impressive' work we do for the county's children and young people, 'making a real difference to their lives'.
"The Healthy Child Services, which includes health visitors, school nurses and family nurse partnership services, were recommissioned in 2018 and as a result of that, it is now a county-wide service delivered by Suffolk County Council.
"Due to reductions in public health grants and other cost pressures, we have had to make adjustments to the care and support we provide, and often these have proved to be difficult decisions. However, we believe with the new service, and by working collaboratively, we will be able to provide the very best care and support that our children and young people deserve."