Almost half of England’s maternity wards were shut to new mums at some point in 2016 because of bed or staff shortages, alarming research revealed today.
The revelation, unearthed by Freedom of Information requests to 42 health trusts, showed under-pressure hospitals were forced to close maternity wards on 382 occasions - a “staggering” 70% rise on 2014, when there were 225 closures. There were 375 shutdowns in 2015.
Heavily pregnant mums therefore faced a longer journey to give birth, with some wards shut for more than 24 hours last year.
Labour has called the stress for parents “unthinkable” while the Royal College of Midwives has called on the Government to “get a grip” and recruit more midwives.
The Department for Health, however, insisted the moves were part of “well-rehearsed safety measures” and trusts were managing “peaks in admissions”.
‘It’s about time the Government listened’
Sean O’Sullivan, Head of Health and Social Policy at The Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said trusts are under pressure to save money by the Government but understaffing “does compromise safety”.
He said: “The RCM respects and supports decisions made to close maternity units when failing to do this will compromise the safety of the service and the women and babies already being cared for.
“Nevertheless, if units are regularly and persistently having to close their doors it suggests there is an underlying problem around capacity and staffing levels that needs immediate attention.
“When units close their doors women diverted to another unit may be upset and disappointed because they are not giving birth in the unit of their choice. It is also very worrying for women who may be in labour and may be distressed to have to travel to another unit, possibly some miles away.
“The RCM has warned time and time again that persistent understaffing does compromise safety and it’s about time the Government listened to those best place to advise.”
Jonathan Ashworth MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Health, said: “These findings show the devastating impact which Tory underfunding is having for mothers and children across the country.
“It is staggering that almost half of maternity units in England had to close to new mothers at some point in 2016. The uncertainty for so many women just when they need the NHS most is unthinkable.
“Under this Government, maternity units are understaffed and under pressure. It’s shameful that pregnant women are being turned away due to staff shortages, and shortages of beds and cots in maternity units.
“Families are being sorely let down by this Government’s failure to recognise the crisis facing our NHS. The Tories need to get a grip and take urgent action to make sure closures like this don’t continue to happen.”
David Cameron pledged to recruit 3,000 extra midwives in 2010, admitting existing staff were “overworked and demoralised” but the numbers have failed to materialise.
The RCM estimates there is a midwife shortage across the country of 3,500.
The FOI data revealed:
The maternity unit at Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust had to close 30 times due to an “insufficient midwifery staffing for workload”.
Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust’s maternity unit was closed on five occasions in 2016. One occasion the unit was closed for 14.5 hours to “maintain safety and staffing levels”
At one site at the Frimley Health Foundation Trust, the unit was temporarily closed because there were no available cots.
East Cheshire NHS Trust had to close its unit for 8 hours in 2016 due to “full cot occupancy” in the neo natal unit.
St Helens & Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust had to close for more than 30 hours on one occasion in 2016 because of bed capacity and high demand.
The maternity unit at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust had to close ten times because of capacity, high activity and staffing.
Medway NHS Foundation Trust shut its unit on 12 occasions, each because of capacity issues.
A Department of Health spokesman said the research, conducted by the Labour Party was “misleading”.
He said: “We want the NHS to be one of the safest places in the world to have a baby and patients should be reassured we continue to have enough midwives in the NHS.
“Temporary closures in NHS maternity units are well rehearsed safety measures which we expect trusts to use to safely manage peaks in admissions.
“To use these figures as an indication of safe staffing issues, particularly when a number of them could have been for a matter of hours, is misleading because maternity services are unable to plan the exact time and place of birth for all women in their care.”
‘Avoidable’ baby deaths and ‘poor quality’ internal reviews
It comes after a flurry of worrying reports about baby deaths in NHS hospitals.
Jeremy Hunt ordered an investigation into maternity services at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust in April after nine “avoidable” baby deaths were uncovered.
A Pennine Acute Hospitals Trust report on maternity services at North Manchester General and Royal Oldham Hospitals, also found in 2016 that babies had died and mums were placed at “unacceptable risk” because of, among other factors, chronic staff shortages on maternity units.
In a separate report, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, looked at more than 700 recent neonatal deaths and injuries in 2015 as parts of its Every Baby Counts study.
It said three in every four of the babies may have had a different outcome had they received different care. The report recommended better staff training and a senior midwife monitor all delivery suites during childbirths.
Prof Lesley Regan, president of the RCOG, however, voiced frustration at the time that trust’s internal reviews of baby deaths were inadequate with the parents invited to take part in just a third of all trust reports.
Prof Regan said: “The fact that a quarter of reports are still of such poor quality that we are unable to draw conclusions about the quality of the care provided is unacceptable and must be improved as a matter of urgency.”
In October 2016, the government launched a Maternity Safety Action Plan to provide resources for trusts to improve their approach to maternity safety, including an £8m fund for maternity safety training.