Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced a “new ambition” to reduce the rate of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths in England by 20% by 2020 and 50% by 2030.
The number of brain injuries occurring during, or soon after, birth will also be targeted as part of the plan to make England “one of the safest places to have a baby”, said the Department of Health.
“The death or injury of even one new baby or mum is a devastating tragedy which we must do all we can to prevent”
The DH said it would work with experts to ensure best practice was applied “consistently” across the NHS and that clinicians could review and learn from every stillbirth and neonatal death.
Maternity services will also be asked to come up with initiatives that can be adopted nationally, such as appointing maternity safety champions to report to trust boards and ensuring all staff have the right training to identify the risks and symptoms of perinatal mental health.
Trusts will receive a share of over £4m of government investment to buy digital equipment and to provide training for staff already working to improve outcomes.
It includes a £2.24m fund to help trusts to buy monitoring or training equipment, such as cardiotocography equipment to monitor babies’ heartbeat and quickly detect problems, or training mannequins that staff can practise emergency procedures on.
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A further £500,000 will be invested in developing a new system for staff to review and learn from every stillbirth and neonatal death, and over £1m will go to rolling out training packages developed with the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
The DH said the plans built on previous government commitments to invest £75m in improving perinatal mental health services.
Mr Hunt said: “With more support and greater transparency in maternity services across England we will ensure every mother and baby receives the best and safest care, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
He added: “Countries like Sweden are proof that focusing on these issues can really improve safety – with the help of staff on the frontline, we can improve standards here at home.”
”It is crucial that all of us involved in maternity care work to reduce tragic outcomes”
In addition, the government said it would “align next steps” with recommendations from the independent review of maternity services, which is currently underway.
RCOG president Dr David Richmond said the college backed the initiative and would continue to work closely with the RCM to “provide better multi-disciplinary training packages and promote more effective team working”.
However, he added: “The challenges of reducing health problems and deaths in mothers and babies due to contributory factors such as smoking, obesity and alcohol also require similar commitment.”
RCM chief executive Cathy Warwick said: “This is an important initiative. It is crucial that all of us involved in maternity care work to reduce tragic outcomes. “
“We are particularly pleased to hear the commitment of £500,000 towards a new system enabling units to properly review a death”
But she added: “It is deeply frustrating for midwives that they cannot provide the quality of maternity care that they want to deliver because they are so short-staffed.”
Judith Abela, acting chief executive of the stillbirth charity Sands, said: “We are extremely pleased to hear the government is committing to a targeted reduction in the numbers of stillbirths, neonatal deaths and brain injuries in babies… we look forward to seeing the detail of how this will be achieved.”
She noted that 5,712 babies died before, during or shortly after birth in the UK in 2013, equivalent to over 100 babies every week.
“Many of these deaths are potentially avoidable and a 20% reduction by 2020 should be easily achieved with standardisation of antenatal, intra-partum and neonatal care,” she said.
“It’s refreshing to hear that the government will commit funds to this reduction [and] to better monitor babies in labour – where poor understanding of and response to the baby’s foetal heart monitoring is often the cause of brain injury and death during childbirth,” said Ms Abela.
“We are particularly pleased to hear the government’s funding commitment of £500,000 towards a new system enabling units to properly review a death when it happens,” she added.
But she also highlighted that stillbirths also occurred when antenatal guidelines set out by National Institute for Health and Social Care were not followed by health professionals.
“Supporting resources and training for midwives, and protecting the time they spend with women, as their first point of contact, is also vital,” she said.