Vulnerable children could be put at risk as the number of health visitors working in the NHS fell by more than 900 in a single year, Labour has warned.
Ministers have been accused of making “hollow promises” to boost dwindling numbers of the specially-trained nurses and midwives, who are credited with improving life chances for some of the most deprived newborns.
A probe by Labour found the NHS has lost 75 health visitors per month since June 2016, with staffing rates plummeting to the lowest point since December 2013 and leaving patchy levels of care across the country.
If shortages continue unchecked then any progress made under the Coalition Government will be wiped out, when ministers pledged to hire an extra 4,500 staff by 2015, the party claims.
It comes after the number of nurses in the NHS fell for the first time since 2013, following a steep drop in the number of EU nationals registering as nurses after Brexit.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth will tell a conference in Cardiff the statistics offer a “damning indictment” of the Government’s record on child health.
He is expected to say: “The fact that health visitors are now falling exposes the Tories’ hollow promises.
“The simple truth is the Tory Government’s staggering cuts are dismantling the country’s public health system, failing some of the most vulnerable in our society and leaving children’s services at risk.”
There were 8588 health visitors working in the NHS in June, which is expected to fall below 8,000 by February 2018 – a similar rate to under the Coalition.
Families are also facing huge variation in treatment as 99% of babies were seen within fourteen days in Enfield, North London, compared to just 25% in North Somerset.
Meanwhile only half of babies in London received a mandated one year check – with figures as low as 3% in Greenwich and 9.6% in Bexley.
Nursing leaders warned the specially-trained staff would struggle to cope with demand if their numbers were hacked back.
Janet Davies, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said: “These experienced professionals cover everything from breastfeeding support to spotting children who may be at risk of abuse. But they are now bearing the brunt of Government cuts and the health and wellbeing of our children is in jeopardy.
“Poor health in childhood has a detrimental impact in later life. The UK is falling even further behind our European neighbours too. Ministers must ensure local councils have the funding to give every child the best start in life and not undermine progress made in the last decade.”
Unite national officer for health, Sarah Carpenter said: “These figures show that the Tory government’s promise to increase health visitor numbers are empty and based more on spin than substance.
“Our members continually tell us of cuts to services and the devastation that they are having on families and communities.”
The Department of Health has been contacted for comment.