Union fights to protect healthcare jobs as plans to cut workforce emerges
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Furious union members and healthcare workers are fighting to protect health visitor jobs in Suffolk after plans to cut a quarter of their workforce have emerged.
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 families, 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.
There are major concerns about the form of the council proposals so far.
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Two health visitors in Suffolk, who are currently facing redundancy and reapplying for their jobs, said the proposal will be a massive blow for families, frontline services and the staff going "above and beyond" for the people they help every day.
Wishing to remain anonymous, one said: "We knew the service has to save £1million, but to be honest this is absolutely devastating.
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"Without health visitors to do this work we will not be able to identify vulnerable children or families early enough and we will not be a prevention service."
Health visitors train for three years as a nurse or midwife, with an additional year earning a Specialist Community Public Health Nursing - Health Visiting (SCPHN-HV) qualification.
Under the current proposal this work would be covered by staff nurses - who have the same first three years' training - or social workers with no formal medical training.
The other health visitor added: "It's about the fact we work with every family in Suffolk without stigma attached; if our numbers are cut those families are going to lose a continuity of service, we will not be able to see the same children from 0-5 years.
"These kinds of cuts are not being made by surrounding counties, they are investing in more health visitors because they know how valuable they are.
"Losing 31 of our staff will mean more pressure on acute health services, more pressure on GPs, more pressure on accident and emergency departments - if families don't feel they can reach us they are going to look for help elsewhere.
"The commitment I see from our work force, people going above and beyond for families every day - it makes it all the more disheartening that we can be treated this way."
The latest figures from NHS Digital show health visitor numbers at their lowest in England since September 2012.
Unite, which has 100,000 members in the healthcare sector, said plans to drop 31 health visitors from the county's staff of 120 were flawed, fearing those remaining will look for posts in Cambridge, Essex and Norfolk.
Unite regional officer Mark Jaina said: "We think that these proposals are motivated by reckless cost-cutting and, if they were to go ahead, it would badly affect thousands of Suffolk families, many of them in vulnerable circumstances.
"The county council appears to want to sneak these plans under the radar without fully consulting all staff side organisations, especially Unite - we were only informed by our members.
"Council bosses also propose to replace a significant number of health visitor roles with lower graded staff nurses - and they will require external recruitment to fill these roles.
"There is already a chronic shortage of nursing staff, an estimated 40,000, across the country, so we are very concerned that the council will not be able to fill many of the roles it will need to advertise for.
"We do not accept that the cuts should come from an outstanding service to 0-5 year olds and their parents and guardians. "
Unite are due to discuss the consultation with SCC on June 20.
The results of the consultation are due to be revealed on June 21.
Council staff say they are looking forward to meeting representatives from Unite.
"We believe that this new model will have a positive impact on the lives of children and young people and their families," said Dr Amanda Jones, interim director of Public Health, and Allan Cadzow, Corporate Director for Children and Young People.
"It is disappointing that Unite accuse us of not consulting with them early enough, when they must acknowledge from their records that we have sent repeated emails and left phone messages for them.
"It is also disheartening to hear Unite talk so critically of staff nurses in its loaded accusation of health visitor roles being replaced with 'lower graded' staff nurses.
"They are not poor quality health visitors; they are qualified and NMC-registered nurses working under health visitors who will be provided with additional training."
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP, Dr Dan 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.
This included extra posts for more deprived areas of Ipswich, Lowestoft and Felixstowe, but these new cuts would undo that work and return numbers oh health visitors to pre-coalition levels.
Speaking after the public consultation closed, Dr Poulter said: "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.
"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."