Lack of staff forced four in ten NHS maternity units to turn away expectant mothers last year, alarming investigation reveals
- Women were left unable to give birth at the maternity unit closest to their home
- Latest figures show the NHS is short of 124,000 staff including 44,000 nurses
Pregnant women were forced to travel to alternative maternity units when four in ten temporarily closed due to staff shortages last year.
Some hospitals turned expectant mothers away for weeks at a time or on dozens of occasions, an alarming investigation reveals.
It means expectant mothers were unable to give birth or have check-ups at the maternity unit or birth centre closest to their home or with the midwives they wanted.
Experts warn this could have been detrimental to mothers and babies as studies show maintaining continuity of care and low levels of stress leads to better health outcomes.
The figures were obtained by the Labour party, which sent freedom of information requests to 194 trusts asking about service closures due to staff shortages.
Women were unable to give birth at the maternity unit or birth centre closest to their home or with midwives they wanted
It received responses from 142, of which 93 had maternity units or birthing centres and 38 had temporarily closed – equal to 41 per cent.
Furthermore, six trusts had to momentarily shut their breast imaging clinics due to a lack of staff and three turned away patients from their stroke units for the same reason.
Vacancies in the NHS hit a record high this year, with the latest figures showing the NHS is short of 124,000 staff including 44,000 nurses and 9,000 doctors.
Over the period covered by the FOI, from November 2021 to October 2022, the number of midwives employed by the NHS fell.
A recent survey of members of the Royal College of Midwives revealed over half are considering leaving their job, many because they fear understaffing is hampering their ability to provide a safe service.
A shortage of maternity staff has been repeatedly raised as matter of concern by inspectors from the Care Quality Commission and inquiries into maternity scandals.
James Titcombe, a patient safety campaigner and ambassador for the charity Baby Lifeline, said: ‘These figure are deeply concerning and further demonstrate the strain under which NHS maternity services are operating at the moment.
‘Local maternity services shutting their doors isn’t merely an inconvenience for women and families, such closures can have a major impact on the safety of care with longer transfer times and an absence of continuity of care.
‘Maternity professionals are frequently working well beyond capacity, with many staff suffering burnout and considering leaving the profession.
‘The government must urgently commit to a fully funded workforce plan in maternity services to address staffing shortages through additional training and recruitment as well as improving retention by ensuring all maternity professionals are cared for, feel valued and are properly supported to provide safe, personal and compassionate care to women and babies.’
The responses reveal Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust closed the birth centres across its Chelsea and Westminster and West Middlesex University sites 50 times, and its maternity units ten times.
Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust had to close its birth centre between October 28 and November 7.
And North-West Anglia NHS Foundation Trust reported closures on 47 days and Kingston Hospital NHS Foundation Trust closed their birth centre for 55 shifts.
Extrapolating the responses to includes those that failed to respond suggests 60 units will have closed at some point.
Maternity units must close temporarily and direct women to the next available service when failing to do so will ‘compromise the safety of the service and the care already being received by women and their babies’.
A spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said: ‘The NHS is under significant pressure, including maternity services, with health professionals working tirelessly in difficult circumstances to manage unprecedented levels of demand.
‘We have consistently called on the Government to put in place a fully-funded, long-term NHS workforce plan.
‘This is critical to improving staff recruitment, retention and wellbeing, reducing gynaecology waiting lists and improving maternity experiences and outcomes.’
Wes Streeting, Labour’s health spokesman, is calling on the government to double the number of medical school places and increase training for nurses and health visitors.
He said: ‘Expectant mothers deserve the security of a well-staffed, safe, and comfortable health service.
‘After 13 years of the Conservatives’ failure to train enough doctors, nurses, and midwives, maternity services are shutting up shop with pregnant women turned away at the door.
‘In his budget next week, Jeremy Hunt should nick Labour’s plan to double medical school places and train 10,000 more nurses and midwives, so mothers and babies are well looked after.’
A CQC report published in January found pregnant women and new mothers are increasingly being abandoned by the NHS.
There has in particular been a ‘concerning decline’ in those able to get help from staff when they need it compared with five years ago.
Exposing the crisis in Britain’s maternity services, the report found that almost four in ten women struggled to get staff to help them while giving birth.
And one in four women said they were left alone by midwives and doctors at a time when they were worried during labour.
Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said: ‘With 124,000 vacancies across the NHS, overstretched front line staff are grappling with ever-growing demand and increasing workloads.
‘We know maternity services across England are facing a number of challenges, including significant workforce shortages.
‘Despite the best efforts of midwifery staff, this is having a knock on effect on their ability to provide care including seeing expectant mothers as quickly as possible.
‘The government’s long-overdue national workforce plan for the NHS can’t come soon enough, but it must be fully-funded if we’re going to fix the major workforce shortages currently hindering the health service.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said it is due to publish a workforce plan this year focused on recruiting and retaining more staff so it can ‘make the NHS the best place to work’.
She added: ‘Temporary closures in NHS maternity units are well-rehearsed safety measures, which trusts use to safely manage peaks in admissions.
‘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.
‘We have invested £127 million to grow the workforce and improve neonatal care, and there are more than 44,300 additional staff working in the NHS compared to a year ago.’
The Royal College of Midwives and NHS England were approached for comment.