Pressure on health visitors puts generation of babies at risk

A coalition of early years charities have warned the government that they're at risk of failing a generation of babies born during the coronavirus pandemic.

Joined by over 2,000 members of the public, the organisations have written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock urging him to rebuild health visiting services in England to support new and expecting parents in these difficult times.

Services struggled to support families across the country even before the pandemic, with the government warned about cuts to public health funding and the significant decline in NHS health visitors.

However, coronavirus restrictions mean many women have had to give birth alone and new parents have been cut off from their support network of family and friends. The pandemic has also meant restrictions to the service and redeployment of health visitors, meaning many families are left without health visits.

Since April, the NSPCC’s helpline has received 1,897 contacts from adults concerned about parental mental health, with over half being serious enough to be referred for further support.

Led by health visitors, all families in England are entitled to receive five check-ins from qualified health visitors via the Healthy Child Programme. However, research conducted prior to the pandemic found only six per cent had been supported by the same health professional throughout the perinatal period. One in four mothers had reviews conducted via letter, text message, or a phone call instead of face-to-face support.

The new Fight for a Fair Start campaign calls on government to make sure all new parents receive the mental health support they need now and beyond the pandemic.

Cheryll Adams, executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting, said: “Over the past five years we have seen an average 30 per cent reduction in the number of health visitors in England, accompanied by a massive variation in these losses across the country. The average health visitor caseload is now 500 children, double the recommended number.

“The number of invisible vulnerable babies will have increased and perinatal mental illness is already reported by health visitors to be ‘sky rocketing’. The whole population will also be paying the price - the erosion of the health visitor role results in kicking the can down the road where the impact is picked up by other much more costly services. We urge the government to listen to the voices of parents, charities and health professionals now and take urgent action to reinstate a robust health visiting service before even more damage is done.”