Despite the crisis in health visitor numbers showing no sign of abating — with the latest figures revealing a further massive drop compared to figures from as recently as earlier this year – Unite has proven there is another way.
Thanks to the brave stand of dozens of health visitors employed by Lincolnshire County Council who’ve taken unprecedented strike action in defence of their pay, terms and conditions, their long-running dispute has come to a victorious end.
The health visitors first voted for strike action earlier this year against an intransigent council which insisted on different contracts for grade 9 and 10 health visitors, in effect creating a two-tier workforce.
Unite has argued that this two-tier workforce has in part emerged as a consequence of a decision by the government to transfer responsibility for health visitors from the NHS to local authorities in 2015.
Unite and its health visitor members have long contested the creation of a divided workforce – because all health visitors have the same qualifications, they should be paid equally.
And after multiple days of strike action, including a month-long strike that began on November 18 but has since been suspended — as well as a demo in the summer attended by health secretary Jon Ashworth and a strong turnout from the local community — Lincolnshire County Council has finally listened.
Now, the vast majority of the workforce will be upgraded to the grade 10 roles.
Of the 70 health visitors who took strike action, 58 will now be fast tracked to the grade 10 posts with 16 further Agenda for Change (AfC) staff awaiting confirmation; about 13 have left or are departing to take up alternative employment within nursing, leaving only a handful of relatively new health visitors on grade 9.
Unite has said it is committed to ensuring the remaining health visitors are placed on grade 10 contracts as soon as possible, and it has also stood firm in reserving the right to reinstitute strike action if the council doesn’t keep to its commitments.
The health visitors will also receive a one-off transitional payment of between £2000 and £6000.
Unite regional officer Steve Syson hailed the striking health visitors’ courage.
“Thanks to the tremendous solidarity that our members have shown since this dispute started in the summer, we have achieved a highly significant and welcome victory,” he said.
“The health visitors’ determination against what they considered as a gross pay injustice was buttressed by the firm backing from the people of Lincolnshire and from supporters across the UK.”
Unite regional secretary for the East Midlands Paresh Patel said that he believed there were “a number of factors that contributed to this positive outcome”, including “the fact that the council was, and even now, is continuing to lose highly skilled health visitors at the rate of knots, as our members are offered alternative roles elsewhere in recognition of their experience.
“There was also the stark realisation by council bosses that our members were prepared to take further strike action on top of what they had already taken in the summer, after a second ballot confirmed they were prepared to continue on with further industrial action,” he added.
“This victory should be seen in the context of a broader campaign for a fully-resourced health visiting service across England – that fight will continue across the country in 2020.”
Indeed, the need for such a fully resourced health visiting service has become all the more urgent amid publication of the latest NHS figures earlier this week.
According to an analysis of the latest NHS data, there were 6,931 full-time equivalent health visitors in England from July this year, down from a peak in October 2015 of 10,309. In six months alone, the number of health visitors has fallen by more than 600, from 7,694 at the beginning of the year.
The accelerating fall in the number of health visitors began just as a national government programme intended to increase numbers ended in 2015. It has also coincided with the decision by the previous Tory-led government to shift responsibility for health visitors from the NHS to local authorities.
In October, a Westminister hall debate was held over the subject of falling health visitor numbers. No concrete proposals forthcoming from the government, with the minister responding to the debate even questioning the figures.
Meanwhile, Labour has pledged to deliver an extra 4,500 health visitors and school nurses, and increase the number of mandated health visits.
- Pic from Lincolnshire health visitors demo, credit: Mark Harvey