Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting two health visitors – both of them good campaigners and serious trade unionists – from Waltham Forest PCT. This was at Unite’s London Health Sector Conference.
The health visitors described how they campaigned a couple of years ago against a 40% reduction in the number of community nurses. They won then, through a high profile campaign, public meetings, a lobby of the Board and so on. I remember speaking at one of the public meetings at the time.
Unfortunately the victory was only temporary. Staffing levels have been reduced by stealth instead, with more and more posts just left vacant. So in health visiting, management has achieved its 40% reduction. Health visitors have been trying for many months to highlight that services are unsafe, and the Trust has been refusing to listen. Quite rightly, these health professionals have again gone public with their concerns.
Last year, 4,500 babies were born in Waltham Forest – but there are only 26 full time health visitors. This cannot be a safe level of staffing. Unite believes that another Victoria Climbié tragedy could be on the cards.
Health visiting is under threat, not just in Waltham Forest but nationally, with the number of qualified staff now at a 13 year low. Historically, health visitors have played an essential role in providing ‘universal’ services – services available to all families. Parenting isn’t easy, and most parents need support at some time. It’s also impossible to predict which families need extra help if you don’t go and see them in the first place. Universal health visiting services are being lost across much of England – and small children and their parents are suffering as a direct result.
A 2006 survey showed huge variation in staffing levels, with caseloads ranging from one health visitor for every 160 children in Doncaster to one health visitor for every 1,140 children in Redbridge, London. I caught a BBC feature on health visiting a couple of days ago. A Department of Health spokeswoman claimed that caseloads were higher in London because London was ‘in advance’ of the rest of the country in implementing the new model of ‘targeted’ services! This is intended to be the future – families and children go without.
Waltham Forest PCT managers claim they are committed to ensuring the safety and welfare of children. Local health visitors report that cases of rickets, degenerative neurological conditions, poor diet, and postnatal depression are being missed.
Sometimes trade union and professional issues come together exactly. These health visitors – professionals and trade unionists – are doing a great job of defending the services they provide.
A link to the local newspaper coverage is here.