More than 84,000 babies missed out on health visitor checks within the first two weeks of life last year, new data shows.
Figures from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities show a drop in the proportion of babies given a health visitor check on time, from 88% in 2020/21 to 83% in 2021/22.
In the East of England, the proportion receiving visits within 14 days was 71%, while it was 73% in the South West.
The figures for England show 470,577 (83%) babies got a visit within the first 14 days of life, while 84,056 (15%) were treated outside this NHS recommended timeframe and received one after 14 days. Other babies may not have received one at all.
Analysis by the Institute of Health Visiting suggest England may have a shortage of at least 5,000 health visitors.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), which highlighted the Government data and shared it with the PA news agency, said early face-to-face health visits were vital for flagging safeguarding concerns and supporting parents.
It is calling on the Department of Health and Social Care to deliver an improved Healthy Child Programme and increase funding for health visitors as part of an upcoming NHS workforce plan.
Jack O’Neill, senior policy and public affairs officer at the NSPCC, said: “It is vital that families receive that crucial first health visit as soon as possible after a child is born to ensure parents and the new baby are living in a safe and healthy environment.
“All families across the country should expect a consistency of care and not be subjected to a postcode lottery.
“With few touchpoints with other services, health visitors provide the only opportunity to engage with babies and new parents in their home environment in this critical period.
“But this important safety net is under immense and growing pressure.
“That’s why the NSPCC is calling on the Government to implement an updated and improved Healthy Child Programme alongside a robust NHS workforce plan which will help give health visitors the resources and tools they need to adequately support families right from the start of a child’s life.”
Survey data from more than 1,300 health visiting staff, published by the Institute of Health Visiting in January, found more than half of health visitors were reporting increases in child safeguarding.
Health visitors also reported “serious concerns that national data mask increases in child safeguarding” because children living with significant risk and vulnerability are not detected when services are cut, and growing numbers of vulnerable children do not meet the threshold for getting on a social worker’s books.
Some 37% of health visitors in the study felt they could provide a good or outstanding service to safeguard children, while 14% rated their service as inadequate and so stretched that there may be a tragedy in their area at some point.
Government data for England shows that, as of last March, there were 50,920 child protection plans in place, up 1.8% from 2021 but down 1.1% from the first year of the pandemic in 2020.
Overall, some 404,310 children were classed as being in need, up 4.1% from 2021 and up 3.9% from 2020. This is the highest number since 2018 and covers children needing help and protection as a result of risks to their development or health.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman 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.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub