22/01/2013 03:22 GMT | Updated 23/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Is the Government Waking up to Midwife Shortage?


Birth figures for England have been rising since 2001. In 2011, for example, over 688,000 babies were born in England, the highest number since 1971. Early figures for the first half of 2012 suggest that the total for last year will be even higher, and official projections point to big rises in the near future. Those are amongst the headline findings of the latest 'State of Maternity Services' report I will be launching in parliament today.

As we were writing this year's report, one question kept jumping out at me: is the UK government finally waking up to this issue? But before I give you my take on that question, let me give you a little more about the current picture.

We all know the population is ageing, but you may not know that mothers are older than they used to be too. The number of babies born to women in England and Wales aged 40 or over is at its highest level since 1948, and in Scotland the number of babies born to women aged 45 or over has more than tripled in the last decade. This demands more of midwives as older women are more likely to suffer from complications and need medical intervention.

Some areas stand out as real baby boom hotspots. Corby, Bournemouth, Boston, Barking and Dagenham, and Slough saw rises in the number of births of more than 50% between 2002 and 2011.

Thankfully just recently we have seen the government in London wake up to the enormity of the baby boom and the stress it has placed on NHS maternity services. So, the number of midwives is up, indeed up by almost 1,000 since the coalition came to power. That builds on rises under Labour. Added to this the number of places for midwives in training is up too, to a record level. This is all good.

Good - but not enough. Our number-crunching, for the year 2011, suggests that England is short of as many as 5,000 midwives. Progress on midwife numbers since the turn of the century reminds me of the tortoise and the hare. I just hope that, as in the case of that fable, the tortoise ends up winning.

England is not alone in suffering a midwife shortage. Wales is too, albeit smaller. This hasn't happened because of a continuing baby boom however; in fact, births have stopped rising in number in Wales. The shortage there is down to midwife numbers being cut in recent years. Ministers in Cardiff should sort it out asap.

Ministers in Scotland and Northern Ireland have, to their credit, kept their midwife numbers healthy, and as a result there is no overall midwife shortage north of the border or across the Irish Sea. That said, Scotland has cut training places for student midwives, and I call on the Scottish Government to reverse that. There may be enough midwives in Scotland right now, but the age profile points to problems in the future; they need to train midwives now to replace those likely to retire soon.

Good maternity care can pay real dividends. Quality antenatal and postnatal care for example can help a young woman quit smoking, improve her diet, and start breastfeeding her baby, with all the clear health benefits in that for her and her baby. Right now a lot of that is being cut back, at least in England, because of the dire shortage of midwives. We need action to turn that around, and ensure that every baby has the very best start in life and the very best chance to live a long, healthy life.