Nearly half of England’s maternity units closed temporarily to new mothers at some point in 2017, which was more than the previous year, according figures published by the Labour Party.
The most commonly cited reason for the closures was capacity and staffing issues, said the party, which collected by the figures using the Freedom of Information Act.
“It is a disgrace that almost half of maternity units in England had to close to new mothers at some point”
It said 89 trusts out of 135 responded to the request and 46% of these had closed their maternity unit to new admissions on at least one occasion in 2017.
This is a slight increase on 2016, when 44% of trusts were found to have closed their maternity unit on one occasion or more.
The party said it also found there were at least 287 occasions when maternity units were closed to new mothers in 2017.
In addition, 41 hospital trusts which responded to an FOI request said they temporarily closed maternity wards to new admissions at some point in 2017
Eight trusts had closures lasting more than 24 hours, while 11 trusts shut temporarily on more than 10 separate occasions each in 2017.
Examples of closures found by Labour include:
- Weston Area Health NHS Trust closed for three weeks in January 2017 due to trust escalation
- The maternity unit at Bristol NHS Trust was closed from December 31 2017 to January 7 2018 due to high activity. The unit was closed on 29 occasions in 2017
- In 2017 Dorset County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust was closed on 16 occasions. All closures were due to safe staffing levels not being established due to increased activity
- In 2017 Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust was closed for 4 hours due to neonatal capacity
- East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust was closed on one occasion in 2017 due to staff sickness
- Pennine Acute Hospital Trust closed its maternity unit 17 times in 2017
- Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust closed four times in 2017 to maintain safety and staffing levels
- The maternity unit at Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust was closed for 37.5 hours due to an unprecedented number of women in labour
- In 2017 the maternity unit at Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust had to close 33 times, of which 24 were due to an “insufficient midwifery staffing for workload”. In 2016 the same trust closed 30 times for the same reason
- The maternity unit at Southend University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust had to closed for 36 hours due to diesel leakage from a plant unit above the maternity ward
According to workforce data published last week by NHS Digital, between March 2017 and March 2018 the number of whole time equivalent midwives increased by 200, from 21,600 to 21,800.
However, the Royal College of Midwives’ latest estimate is that the NHS in England has a shortage of 3,500 midwives.
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Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “It is a disgrace that almost half of maternity units in England had to close to new mothers at some point in 2017.
“Maternity units are understaffed and under pressure,” he said. “Labour is committed to making child health an absolute priority with our ambition of the healthiest children in the world,” he said.
“That means giving every child the best start in life including proper investment in maternity services,” said Mr Ashworth.
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A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We want the NHS to be one of the safest places in the world to have a baby and earlier this year we announced a 25% increase in midwifery training places.
“Temporary closures in NHS maternity units are well-rehearsed safety measures, which trusts use to safely manage peaks in admissions,” he said.
He added: “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.”
The government said in March that an extra 3,000 midwives would be trained over the next four years and a voluntary register set up for support staff. The boost in numbers will start with 650 more midwives in training next year, representing a 25% rise, according to the Department of Health and Social Care.
This will be followed by planned increases of 1,000 in the subsequent years as capacity rises, which it said would form part of the “largest ever increase in NHS midwives and maternity support staff”.
However, it remains unclear whether the increase will be achieved through an increase in funding for training placements for student midwives.
This is because, since it ended the provision of student bursaries and moved to loans, neither itself nor its arms’-length bodies directly commission course places at universities.
Meanwhile, the government also stated that there would be a new “defined maternity support worker role”, to increase professionalism, and new “training routes into midwifery” introduced.
These latter two moves regarding support workers hint at a similar approach to that already being adopted with nursing associates and nurse apprenticeships.
The measures were outlined at an event to mark two years since the launch of the Maternity Transformation Programme. The strategy was launched to take forward the recommendations set out in the Better Births report on the findings of the national maternity review, which was published in February 2016.
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Before the 2010 election, then prime minister David Cameron promised to recruit 3,000 more midwives, stating: “We are going to make our midwives’ lives a lot easier.
“They are crucial to making a mum’s experience of birth as good as it can possibly be, but today they are overworked and demoralised,” he said.
“So, we will increase the number of midwives by 3,000,” he told The Sun in January 2010.
Royal College of Midwives responses to today’s figures:
Gill Walton, general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said; “Safety in our maternity services is paramount and that is why the RCM respects and supports decisions made by midwife managers to close maternity units when levels of staffing are not safe.
“Maternity units must be closed when failing to do so will compromise the safety of the service and the care already being received by women and their babies.
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“We know trusts are facing huge pressures to save money demanded by the government, but this cannot be at the expense of safety. We remain 3,500 midwives short in England and if some maternity units regularly have to close their doors it suggests there is an underlying problem around capacity staffing levels.
“Some progress has been made in the past year and the RCM is working with the government and Health Education England to ensure our maternity services are safe and midwife numbers increase.
“In April this year the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Jeremy Hunt announced plans to train an additional 3,000 more midwives over the next four years, but what we need now is a commitment from the government that NHS trusts are going to get an increase in funding that they so desperately need so they employ the new midwives.
“Also, the recent pay agreement between the health unions and the government after seven years of pay freezes will help our maternity services to retain the midwives they have and it will aid the recruitment of more into the profession.
“Midwives and maternity support workers work tirelessly every day to deliver safe high quality care and its important women who are currently pregnant are not distressed by this research.
“A priority going forward for all UK maternity services is continuity of carer and this would ensure every woman has a named midwife during pregnancy and one-to-one care in labour so it’s never been more crucial that we have enough midwives and maternity support workers in our maternity services.”