Those on the school and public health part of the register play an absolutely vital role, especially for the present and future health of children, and that must never be forgotten.
While the many challenges facing nurses working in NHS and social care settings rightly continue to be highlighted, I want to focus today on school nurses, health visitors and other public health nurses.
Two stories this week published by Nursing Times I feel demonstrate their worth to society and, at the same time, that recognition of that worth is not always forthcoming.
The first reveals that school nurses have been left “emotionally distressed” after witnessing children taking food out of bins to feed their families and stealing clothes from their peers to keep warm.
The chief executive of the School and Public Health Nurses Association (SAPHNA), Sharon White, told us these “harrowing” cases were becoming more common amid the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
SAPHNA has heard from an increasing number of school nurses who are worried about the lengths that children and parents are going to in order to access basic things like food and hot water.
“When a group of nursing professionals state that they are seeing a public health problem unfold before them at a scale like this, ministers need to sit up and take notice”
Ms White reiterated SAPHNA’s calls for the government to invest in free school meals for children, warning there were “less and less options available” for school nurses to support students in need.
This echoes a call made recently by independent healthcare consultant and former chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing Peter Carter in Nursing Times about childhood obesity.
He said it makes economic sense that across the country we should provide children with free school meals; not just in London where they are to become a fixture from the start of the next school year.
SAPHNA clearly confirms to me the vital role that school nurses have as an early-warning system for problems facing school-age children, in the same way that health visitors do for those younger.
When a group of nursing professionals state that they are seeing a public health problem unfold before them at a scale like this, ministers need to sit up and take notice.
Now I want to turn to the recognition of those vital roles. Not only do ministers need to listen to public health nurses, they also need to ensure they are not forgotten in any pay deal for the NHS.
NHS leaders have this week openly called on the government to commit funding to local authorities to cover pay awards for nurses on public health contracts.
The NHS Confederation and NHS Providers have warned that if local authorities are not given extra money to fund the pay increases for the next financial year, providers may be forced to “scale back” on patient services to meet the increased costs.
In a letter to the health secretary, they called for clarity about funding arrangements for ensuring that any pay rise offered to NHS Agenda for Change nurses can also be offered to staff working on similar contracts within public health.
This is clearly essential if we are to maintain the workforce of nurses working in public health for local authorities. Otherwise, we risk making different sectors more financially appealing.
Again, I urge the government to listen to those in the know, in this case health service leaders, on a part of policy that, to my mind, cannot be ignored.
Let’s remember, these are not public sector or council bodies calling for better pay for nurses employed by local authorities. They are NHS leaders who could have quite easily left well alone.
As the recently retired and long-standing chief nurse of Public Health England, Professor Viv Bennett, used to tell me often, we should think of their role not as public health but as the public’s health.
That perhaps is the key to making it sound more identifiable and urgent, as opposed to sounding vague and too large to comprehend. Either way, the message needs to get through about it.
Florence Nightingale herself played a key part as a pioneer in public health nursing. For example, she famously wrote that the way to prevent childhood mortality is not to build hospitals but to improve household hygiene.
Her raising of concerns about the health inequalities among families and communities, backed by her use of data and communication skills to lobby for improvements are still a model for modern-day public health nursing practitioners.
I feel sure, if around today, she would be arguing fiercely that ministers recognise the role of public health nurses and heed their warnings on the health of children.
There is also a great opportunity right now to highlight the work of public health nurses via the Nursing Times Awards. In 2021, we launched the Public Health Nursing category specifically to recognise the important role that the nursing profession plays in promoting and protecting the public’s health.
Entries for the 2023 Nursing Times Awards are currently open, so please consider entering this category if you or your team have done something brilliant in public health nursing that we can share and celebrate. The entry deadline for the Nursing Times Awards is 12 May.
For more information visit: awards.nursingtimes.net