A new national blueprint for children’s health is needed to tackle deteriorating outcomes and health inequalities, the chief executive of the Institute of Health Visiting has told.
Alison Morton, speaking exclusively with Nursing in Practice, said that compared with other nations the state of child health in the UK was ‘something to be ashamed of’ and that central funding and ambitious workforce targets were now necessary.
‘We need to do something, and the lack of action is a huge concern,’ said Ms Morton. ‘The current government policy is a step in the right direction but it’s not at the scale we need to address the problem.
‘This is too important to leave to chance, we need a national blueprint, and it needs to be centrally funded.’
Currently, health visiting services are commissioned by local authorities who receive funding through a health grant. However, Ms Morton claims that the government needs to take more responsibility for ensuring the success of services.
‘National government sets the context in which local government works,’ said Ms Morton. ‘They can’t just wash their hands of it and say it’s got nothing to do with them when we have this massive variation across local authorities in England.’
A lack of centrally organised planning and funding creates a ‘postcode lottery’ for services which Ms Morton said ‘cannot be justified’.
Ms Morton added that children’s health was caught between falling budgets for local services and raising need driven by the cost-of-living crisis.
The Covid-19 pandemic coupled with the cost-of-living crisis has made more families vulnerable, while at the same time local governments have seen a 24% cut to the public health grant in real terms, Ms Morton said.
‘We need to be absolutely clear; this is driven by funding. Local authorities are doing the best they can against a backdrop of rising need and cuts to the public health grant’ she added.
As cuts take an effect on local government budgets, thresholds for access to care are raised, Ms Morton explained, leaving children’s health services ‘firefighting’ the most severe cases of child protection issues ‘at the expense of preventative public health’.
Despite a growing national awareness of the need to ‘shift our focus upstream to prevention’, Ms Morton said that government cuts were ‘forcing health visiting services to take their eye off prevention and early intervention – they are really just firefighting in some areas’.
Ms Morton also described the Healthy Child Programme, a government initiative focussing on the first five years of life, as a robust policy but added ‘it can’t remain as lovely words written on paper’.
‘It needs to be delivered in full to all children, regardless of where they live – this needs to be costed by central government so that local authorities can be provided sufficient funding,’ she added.
‘This isn’t a political football, this is too important to be left to chance, or passing the buck around and blaming local authorities.’
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We are committed to giving babies and children the best start in life and have increased local public health grants – which fund the commissioning of services including health visiting – to over £3.4 billion for all local authorities.
‘We are also investing around £300 million to fund a new three-year Family Hubs and Start for Life programme – improving health and education in 75 local authorities with high levels of deprivation.’