The National Audit Office review concluded that the majority of intensive care neonatal units were not reaching staffing standards set by the British Association of Perinatal Medicine (BAPM).
It showed that each of the country’s 180 units had an average of three vacancies for nurses qualified in neonatal care – equivalent to 9% of the total workforce.
Only half of units met the BAPM standard for high dependency care of one nurse to two babies and only 24% met the standard for intensive care of one nurse to one baby.
The report, Caring for Vulnerable Babies: The Reorganisation of Neonatal Services in England, published last month, reviewed the state of care for premature babies following the reorganisation of neonatal services into 23 regional networks in 2003.
The NAO also said it was concerned over the numbers of cots for premature babies. Units were closed to new admissions an average of 52 times in the last year, due to lack of cots and shortages in nursing staff.
Karen Taylor, director of health value for money studies at the NAO, said: ‘The greatest concerns are the staffing and capacity problems. Having a cot is only the first stage because you have to have staff to use the cots.’
Premature baby charity BLISS warned last year that a lack of specialist nursing staff was stretching special care baby units to breaking point across the UK. It said the neonatal nurse workforce was 2,600 under strength.
The charity’s chief executive Andy Cole said: ‘The NAO report really backs up everything that BLISS has been talking about in terms of nurse shortages.’
He added: ‘We feel that PCTs should be mandated to keep the BAPM’s standards because, at the moment, they aren’t.’