Nearly half of England’s maternity units were closed to new mothers at some point in 2016, according to figures collected by the Labour Party.
The data revealed that 42 hospital trusts that responded to a Freedom of Information request said they temporarily closed maternity wards to new admissions at some point in 2016.
“It is staggering that almost half of maternity units in England had to close to new mothers”
Some closures lasted more than 24 hours, while over 10 trusts shut temporarily on more than 10 separate occasions each, said Labour, as it revealed its findings today.
The party highlighted there were 382 occasions when units had to close their doors during 2016, representing a 70% increase from 2014 when it occurred on 225 occasions.
Trusts reported that capacity and staffing issues were the most common reasons for the closures, said Labour.
It cited a number of examples up and down the country, including the maternity unit at St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which had to close for more than 30 hours on one occasion in February 2016, because of bed capacity and high activity.
The unit at Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust closed 30 times last year due to an “insufficient midwifery staffing for workload”, while that at Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust was closed five times, on one occasion for 14.5 hours to “maintain safety and staffing levels”.
East Cheshire NHS Trust also had to close its unit for eight hours in 2016, due to “full cot occupancy” in the neonatal unit, Medway NHS Foundation Trust was shut on 12 occasions and Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust on 10 because of capacity, high activity and staffing.
Representing other reasons why units were shut, the one at George Eliot NHS Foundation Trust was partially closed in 2015 for three hours because there was no available ventilator.
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Meanwhile, in 2014, St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust’s unit had to close for 10 hours due to a water leak, and the one at Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals Trust closed on two occasions because the lift broke down, leaving no way of transferring patients from the unit.
Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth 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,” he said.
“Under this government, maternity units are understaffed and under pressure,” he said. “It’s shameful that pregnant women are being turned away due to staff shortages, and shortages of beds and cots in maternity units.”
He called on the government “to get a grip and take urgent action to make sure closures like this don’t continue to happen”.
Labour asked all 136 hospital trusts in England with a maternity unit how many occasions has the unit been closed to new admissions in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Of the 96 trusts that responded to the request and 42 had closed their maternity unit to new admissions on at least one occasion in 2016.
In 2016 there were 382 occasions when units had to close their doors, compared to 375 in 2015 and 225 and 2014.
The Royal College of Midwives said the research by Labour revealed the extent of the staffing crisis affecting England’s maternity services.
“Persistent understaffing does compromise safety and it’s about time the government listened to those best placed to advise”
Sean O’Sullivan, head of health and social policy at the RCM, said the figures came as “no surprise” to the college and “further proves just how badly” maternity services were struggling.
He said some of the temporary closures reflected the “significant pressures” on maternity services across England, both in terms of staff shortages and funding issues.
“Midwife managers work incredibly hard to keep services safe and to provide high quality care, but they cannot do this without the correct levels of funding and resources to employ enough midwives,” 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,” he said. “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.”
He added: “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 placed to advise.”
In response to the Labour figures, the Department of Health said there were now more than 2,000 additional midwives compared with May 2010, and that here were also 6,500 midwives currently in training.
“Temporary closures in NHS maternity units are well rehearsed safety measures, which we expect trusts to use to safely manage peaks in admissions,” said a DH spokesman.
“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,” he added.