Concerns have been raised about corporate and clinical governance arrangements and patient safety protocols in specific areas at termination provider Marie Stopes International, prompting it to suspend some of its services.
The Care Quality Commission and NHS England said they were working with Marie Stopes to make sure that patients were “protected from potential harm when undergoing pregnancy terminations”.
“We believe that the action taken is appropriate to address our concerns”
As a result of the concerns, Marie Stopes International has suspended termination of pregnancy provision for under-18s and vulnerable groups of women.
It has also suspended terminations under general anaesthetic or conscious sedation, and suspended all surgical terminations at its Norwich centre.
The CQC said its concerns related to poor governance arrangements, which had given rise to specific immediate concerns relating to the lack of assurance in areas such as consent and safeguarding, and training and competence in conscious sedation and general anaesthesia.
Regulatory processes prevented it from being able to disclose further details at this stage, said the regulator in a statement issued late this afternoon.
While the restrictions respond to the most serious concerns raised, the CQC said it would continue to “monitor the situation very closely and will not hesitate to take regulatory action, if necessary”.
The CQC said the restrictions must remain in place until Marie Stopes had assured the regulator that it had appropriate systems in place to care for all of its patients safely.
Professor Edward Baker, the CQC’s deputy chief inspector of hospitals, said: “Given the nature of the concerns we identified on our inspections, it is right that Marie Stopes International has suspended a number of its services.
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“At all times, our priority is to ensure that patients get safe, high-quality and compassionate care,” he said. “We believe that the action taken is appropriate to address our concerns.
“We will report fully and publicly on our inspection findings as soon as our regulatory process has concluded and we are able to do so,” he added.
In response, NHS England said it had “activated contingency arrangements” to ensure that all patients seeking the services that are currently suspended receive safe and high-quality care.
It will mean diverting around 250 women a week to other providers, said NHS England, which has established a confidential helpline service – 0300 123 1041.
Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England’s national medical director, said: “We are taking immediate action to ensure everybody involved has access to the appropriate confidential advice and services.”
The restrictions from Marie Stopes International will take effect immediately, said the statement.
Patients who have been booked in already for procedures that have now been restricted are being contacted so they receive their care at an alternative provider.
The CQC said it would report on its findings fully once it published its inspection reports of the services provided by Marie Stopes International and its corporate headquarters in the autumn.
The government has also informed Marie Stopes International that it will not approve further clinics to offer termination services until the CQC is satisfied its concerns have been fully addressed.
The CQC inspected Marie Stopes International’s registered locations in England during a series of inspections, as part of its planned programme.
A number of concerns linked to the provider’s governance arrangements sparked an unannounced inspection of Marie Stopes International’s corporate headquarters in England last month and of its call centre on 12 August.
The CQC has been inspecting all independent providers of stand-alone termination of pregnancy services as part of its wider inspection programme of independent healthcare services in England.
Marie Stopes International has been contacted by Nursing Times for a response.
The British Pregnancy Advice Service said it was “working hard” to provide additional termination services in order to cover the suspensions.
BPAS chief executive Ann Furedi said: “BPAS is working with NHS England and the Care Quality Commission, at their request, to ensure that the impact of this situation on women seeking abortion is minimal.
“Our staff and clinics are doing everything possible to prevent delays in treatment at this time,” she said. We are maximising our capacity and working hard so no woman is unable to get an abortion if she needs one.”
Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow health secretary, noted that the suspensions had come as a surprise.
“Marie Stopes is a large and trusted provider that thousands of young and vulnerable women rely on,” she said. “We cannot downplay the psychological and physical harm that may result from cancelled or delayed procedures.
“I am very concerned as to how the transfer of services will be managed,” she said. “The government must urgently provide assurances that timely treatment will be delivered by appropriate service providers.
“Women have a fundamental right to choose and currently there are far too many disturbing trends that would appear to whittle away at these rights,” she added.