Fears for new mothers as Suffolk slashes health visitor numbers

Denis Campbell
Photograph: John Birdsall/Rex

Health visitors will be made redundant by a local council, sparking fears that new mothers will get less help with mental health problems, breastfeeding and babies’ sleep.

Suffolk County Council – the area in which health secretary Matt Hancock is an MP – plans to cut as many as 31 full-time posts from its 120-strong health visitor workforce, through a combination of redundancies and not filling vacancies, despite the team’s key role in family health.

Internal council documents seen by the Observer show that the Conservative-controlled authority intends to push through the controversial plan by September in order to save £1m from its health visiting, school nursing and family nurse partnership services.

The council is being forced to change the way it provides health services for children and young people because the public health grant it receives from central government has been slashed by £5.47m (16.7%) since 2015/16.

The council wants to drastically reduce the role of health visitors so they no longer undertake three of the five checks of mother-and-baby health that all should receive by the time the infant is two-and-a-half years old. In future they will focus on the most vulnerable families – with nurses, who health visitors say have not had the same training, taking on the other three checks.

Health visitors help parents tackle childhood obesity, prepare for their baby to have its childhood vaccinations and ensure that infants bond with their mother and father in the crucial early months.

The proposal has triggered a backlash. Local Conservative MPs are warning that “dismantling” Suffolk’s health visiting service will reduce the advice and support that parents receive to help them negotiate the challenges of having a baby. MPs including Jo Churchill and Dr Dan Poulter intend to question council leader Matthew Hicks about the plans at a meeting on 5 July.

It is disappointing to see councils like Suffolk dismantling a service so important to new families

Dan Poulter, MP

The documents reveal that north-east Ipswich and coastal Suffolk are due to lose 14 full-time equivalent health visitor posts, and south and west Ipswich 7 posts, because the council has decided to cut the budget of its 0-19 Healthy Child Service by 10%, which is about £1m.

Poulter, who served as a health minister in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, said: “Having worked hard as a health minister to personally oversee the rebuilding of the health visitor workforce, and increase health visitor numbers by over 4,000 between 2012 and 2015, it is disappointing to see councils like Suffolk dismantling a service that is so important to new families.”

The Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales, recently warned that health visitor numbers had fallen so much since 2015 – to about 8,000 – that services for “our youngest generation” were at risk.

Retirements, health visitors leaving to do other jobs and a lack of new recruits meant the residual workforce was “being stretched to its limits”, it said.

Year-on-year Whitehall cuts to public health budgets is leading to councils reducing sexual health and drug and alcohol addiction services, Poulter added. “Sadly, it looks as though health visiting services and the families they care for are now also suffering.” He urged ministers to amend the Health and Social Care Act 2012 so that the NHS regains responsibility for public health.

One Suffolk health visitor said: “We’re all feeling very angry and very demoralised by the council’s decision. We all support each other in our work but are now being put in competition with each other for jobs, because we’re all having to reapply for our existing jobs.

“It’s short-sighted to cut health visitor numbers because if a mum who needs health advice about her baby can’t see us she’ll go to her GP or A&E, both of which are already very busy. And it will force mums to go over their baby’s whole history with first their health visitor, and then the nurse that starts doing three of the checks we do now, so our relationships with clinets will be broken.”

Suffolk County Council said that Ofsted recently rated its children’s services as “outstanding”.

A spokesperson added: “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.”