16/06/2013 11:21 BST | Updated 16/06/2013 11:34 BST

Pregnant Women Turned Away At Maternity Wards Due To Staff Shortages, Lack Of Beds

Newborn baby boy in mother's arms

Thousands of expectant mothers are being turned away from maternity wards due to staff shortages and a lack of available beds, it was reported.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show maternity wards in England are shutting their doors more than 1,000 times a year, forcing mothers-to-be to seek urgent medical care elsewhere.

The Sunday Telegraph said the figure is expected to be much higher, when taking into account every health trust in the country - including many of those who failed to respond to the request for information.

Data obtained by the newspaper says more than 1,700 women have been turned away over the past two years.

Patients who went to attend labour units then had to either travel up to 65 miles to the nearest ward with an available bed, or give birth at home, it said.

At Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, units closed 353 times in 24 months at two hospitals - although the trust said the closure of one unit meant patients were sent to its other site, a short distance away.

In most cases, a lack of beds or "capacity" was cited as the reason for closures, which typically lasted several hours at a time and sometimes saw wards shut for several days, the newspaper said.

Shortages of midwives, consultants, anaesthetists and other medical staff were the other major cause for turning women away as staff decided it would be unsafe to admit new patients.

Leeds Teaching Hospitals said it ran an "integrated service" between its two maternity units, which are around two miles apart.

A spokesman said: "Inevitably at times demand can be unpredictable and if one location gets too busy we have the ability to divert mums-to-be to our neighbouring facility to ensure safe and effective care with the minimum of disruption.

"The number of times we have closed the whole service is low - just four times in the last two years.

"Since early this year we have started to triage all women before they arrive at the hospital through our Maternity Assessment Centre.

"When they report possible labour, we advise which delivery suite is currently taking admissions so that we match availability of beds and midwives to the needs of the women coming into hospital, ensuring the best support for them.

"This also helps to prevent closures."

An NHS spokesman said women were directed to another unit when one was approaching capacity - a decision taken in the interests of patient safety.

He said: "This might only be for a short period of time to safely respond to peaks in demand. It is a carefully managed process which is in place in the best interests of mum and baby.

"During pregnancy, a woman will have detailed discussions with their midwife who will explain about the various birthing options available and scenarios like this where it might be more appropriate to go to another unit."

The spokesman said the NHS has 800 more midwives than it did in 2010, and there are a record 5,000 midwives in training who will qualify over the next three years.

He added: "We realise there has been a long history of a shortage of midwives but this is a situation that NHS England is keen to address.

"As a workforce issue, it is for the GP-led Clinical Commissioning Groups to look at their provision and to commission the services locally to ensure adequate cover.

"Most women already have a choice and one-to-one maternity care, and we are working closely with the Royal College of Midwives to ensure that personalised, one-to-one maternity care is available for every woman across the country."