A primary care trust has become the first in the country to sign a contract with a private company to provide maternity care.
NHS Wirral has signed a three year deal with the company One to One, following a pilot scheme to provide services to women in the local area.
Those women opting to go with One to One will be provided with a midwife who sees them through all their antenatal care, birth of the baby and postnatal care.
This will be an alternative to the usual NHS services on offer, although One to One midwives will be able to go into NHS hospitals to deliver the baby if the woman has a hospital birth.
The company is now in talks with other PCTs around England and Wales about providing some of their maternity services.
At present, the firm employs 28 people, including 20 midwives, but is looking to expand.
In the pilot scheme with NHS Wirral, One to One provided care for all aspects of pregnancy other than the actual birth. With the backing of the Department of Health, the company has now secured the insurance it needs to provide deliveries as well.
In the two weeks since the contract was signed with NHS Wirral, around 10 babies have been born using One to One midwives, most of them at home.
Joanne Parkington, founder and clinical director of One to One, described the contract as probably the “biggest thing to happen in midwifery” since the 1902 Midwives Act established the state regulation of midwives.
She said: “One to One aims to reinvent free midwifery services by delivering a personalised service that places women and their families at the heart of their care.
“For the first time, the NHS is able to give women choice in their maternity care. It will also relieve the pressure on the existing NHS system and introduce a specialised service for teenagers and the most vulnerable.”
Jacque Gerrard, the Royal College of Midwives’ director for England, said: “The RCM is aware of the progress made by One to One as a maternity service provider, and we welcome it as an add-on service for choice for women.
“However, we have reservations regarding the impact upon jobs for midwives in the NHS. We have formed a professional relationship with One to One to gain recognition for our members, as they will be an alternative employer for midwives.”
Labour’s shadow public health minister Diane Abbott said: “This long-term privatisation project may well end up marginalising our NHS maternity services, and draining them of resources.
“It is incredible that having directly promised an extra 3,000 midwives before the election, what we now see from this government is NHS maternity services being sidelined and privatised, thousands of clinical posts such as nurses and midwives being axed, and the NHS budget being cut in real terms.”