New data indicates that the number of health visitors working within the NHS system has fallen significantly over the last 12 months.
This figure has diminished by 9% in the space of just one year, leading to concern among senior nurses.
There had been some recent success in recruiting new nurses to the profession, but fears now abound that the workforce could return to the dangerous low levels experienced previously.
And data has also emerged which reveals that NHS school nurses slumped by 6% over the same period.
This reduction in staffing levels is notable due to the fact that it escalated after the commissioning of public health services was fully transferred over to local authorities back in October 2015.
The fact that many such bodies throughout the country are struggling financially may have contributed to this declining trend.
Further data over a longer timeframe will be required in order to confirm whether or not this is indeed the case.
But the information available currently appears to confirm fears that cuts to public health budgets at the council level will reduce the number of nurses ultimately working within children’s services.
According to the latest NHS Digital data, in October 2015 there were 10,309 whole-time equivalent health visitors working in the NHS.
This was considered encouraging, as it represented the highest level recorded within the NHS for over a decade.
But by October 2016 there were just 9,410 WTE health visitors working in the NHS – an 8.7% drop, equal to a loss of 899 posts.
Experts now believe that there is a significant possibility that visiting numbers could fall back to the derisory level that staffing reached the beginning of the decade.
Although Conservative party policy has frequently been criticised with regard to the NHS, it could be reasonably asserted that the recruitment of nursing staff is one area in which it has been vindicated.
However, the decision to scrap bursaries for nurses is expected to have a huge knock-on effect on the profession in the coming years.
This has perhaps already been reflected over the last 12 months, with a 6% reduction in the number of WTE school nurses working in the NHS, down from 2,725 in October 2015 to 2,561 a year later, according to NHS Digital figures.
Dr Cheryll Adams, executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting, is particularly concerned that the signs of decline have been experienced previously, and are now being repeated.
“This happened 10 years ago. In 2005 when cuts in health visiting started to happen across the country, a lot of capable health visitors said, ‘actually I really can’t go to work and hold a caseload that is so large and feels unsafe’. So they went off sick or looked for other jobs. That will be starting to happen again when cuts are planned.”
However, a Department of Health spokesman suggested that the latest statistics are misleading.
“These statistics do not include health visitors directly employed by local authorities and so are not an accurate picture of how many are currently working in England. We are investing £16bn during this parliament to make sure local services, including health visitors, are in place to support people in their communities.”