Speaking to the national Breastfeeding: a public health priority conference in London today, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, said the UK, the sixth largest economy in the world, is lagging behind most other high-income countries on mortality, breastfeeding and obesity rates.
To tackle health inequalities and improve early intervention services, he said a Labour Government would introduce a mandatory health visit at three- to four-months-old, a time that experts say is critical after a child’s birth in supporting continued breastfeeding and when mothers are at substantial risk of perinatal mental health.
The party would commit £25 million for health visiting to fund the pledge, paid for through Labour’s National Child Health Fund, announced in the General Election.
The announcement follows new analysis by the Royal Society Institute which reveals that since the end of the national Health visitor Programme in 2015, staffing numbers and funding have tailed off. A survey by the institute found that nearly a third of health visitors say their ability to support breastfeeding mothers has reduced in recent years.
The analysis shows that between 2016/17 and 2017/18, local authorities will have £55.2 million in real terms cut from their public health 0-5 children’s services, which covers universal health visitor reviews.
The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) health visitors working in the NHS is at its lowest since August 2013. As of December 2017, there were 8,244 FTE health visitors. According to the institute, the number of health visitors peaked at 10,309 in October 2013, which it says means there has been a fall of more than 2,065 health visitors or 20 per cent in just over two years.
The cut to health visitor numbers have led to huge variations in outcomes for children across the country, the analysis finds.
- Nationally, 12 per cent of babies missed out on a New Birth Visit in the most recent period, but performance was mixed – rising to 17 per cent in the South West of England.
- Nationally, 17 per cent of babies missed out on their six- to- eight week review, although in London this was one third of babies.
- Nationally, over 25 per cent of children did not receive their mandated one-year review by 12 months, rising to 44 per cent of children in London.
- 90 per cent of North East babies received a two and half year check, compared to just 64 per cent in London and 73 per cent in the East of England.
The shadow health secretary also pledged to reinstate the discontinued Infant Feeding Survey that was established by a Labour Government and which measured incidence, prevalence and duration of breastfeeding and other feeding practices adopted by mothers in the first eight- to- ten months of their child’s life.
Under Labour, the survey would measure breastfeeding rates up until 12 months of age.
Other proposals include increasing and protecting public health budgets to ensure universal health visiting services and breastfeeding support is safeguarded and upheld, and working with all NHS maternity services to achieve and maintain UNICEF’s UK Baby Friendly Initiative accreditation.
Speaking at the conference hosted by the Institute of Health Visiting and Royal Society for Public Health, Labour's shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, said, ‘After many years of progress, health outcomes for babies and young children in the UK are stalling. We are lagging behind most other high-income countries on mortality, breastfeeding and obesity rates.
‘So I want to use the opportunity of its 70th anniversary to reflect on the next stage of the NHS’s development. And I strongly believe a laser like focus on improving the health and well-being of every child must be an absolute priority.
‘The future of health visiting services is at a critical juncture. David Cameron and Theresa May used to boast of their commitment to increase the number of health visitors. Yet we have actually seen health visitors cut by more than 20 per cent in just over two years.
‘We must do better in England where families generally receive the lowest level of universal health visiting support when compared to the other UK nations, both in numbers and quality of universal contacts received.
‘As health secretary it will be my commitment to work with Health Visitors to implement an additional mandated health visit at three- to four months backed up by an extra £25 million of investment from our National Child Health Fund.
‘Our ambition is to create the conditions for the healthiest children in the world.’