Horton Hospital campaigners demonstrate in London against the closure of the hospital’s maternity department
Horton Hospital campaigners demonstrate in London against the closure of the hospital’s maternity department

NEARLY half of England’s maternity units were forced to close to new mothers at some point during 2016 because of severe funding cuts, the closure of maternity services up and down the country and a shortage of 3,500 midwives, data obtained by Labour under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) has shown.

The Royal College of Midwives said: ‘When units close their doors, women diverted to another unit may be upset and disappointed because they are not giving birth in the unit of their choice. It is also very worrying for women who may be in labour and may be distressed to have to travel to another unit, possibly some miles away.’

If a heavily pregnant woman suffers complications, needs a caesarean or starts to bleed heavily, if not immediately treated, both baby’s and mother’s lives are put at risk. Sean O’Sullivan, Head of Health and Social Policy at The Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said: ‘Maternity services are struggling due to understaffing. The RCM has warned time and time again that persistent understaffing does compromise safety.’

42 hospital trusts which responded to an FOI request say they temporarily closed maternity wards to new admissions at some point in 2016. Some closures lasted more than 24 hours, while over ten trusts shut temporarily on more than ten separate occasions each. In 2016 there were 382 occasions when units had to close their doors, a 70 per cent increase from 2014.

O’Sullivan continued: ‘Some of these temporary closures highlighted in Labour’s report reflect the significant pressures on maternity services across England, which remain 3,500 full time midwives short of the minimum number needed.

‘Trusts are also facing huge pressures to save money demanded by the government, but this cannot be at the expense of safety. Midwife managers work incredibly hard to keep services safe and to provide high quality care, but they cannot do this without the correct levels of funding and resources to employ enough midwives.’

The FOI showed:

• Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust closed its maternity unit on 30 occasions in 2016, citing ‘insufficient midwifery staffing for workload’.

• Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust closed its unit five times, once for 14.5 hours to ‘maintain safety and staffing levels’.

• East Cheshire NHS Trust closed its maternity unit for eight hours, citing ‘full cot occupancy’ in the neo-natal unit.

• Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust closed its maternity unit ten times, because of capacity, high activity and staffing.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘These findings show the devastating impact which Tory underfunding is having for mothers and children across the country. The uncertainty for so many women just when they need the NHS most is unthinkable.’

National Childbirth Trust senior policy adviser Elizabeth Duff said it was ‘appalling’ that pregnant women ‘are pushed from pillar to post in the throes of labour’.