NHS trusts in England have closed their maternity units to new mothers on at least 287 occasions in 2017, according to research by the Labour Party.
The data, collected by freedom of information request (FOI) to 135 trusts, found that 46% of trusts that responded to the FOI had closed their maternity units to new admissions on at least one occasion last year. Staffing and capacity issues were the most common reasons for closures.
Of the 85 of that responded to the request, 41 closed their units at least once in 2017. Eight trusts had closures that lasted over 24 hours and 11 shut temporarily on more than 10 occasions each.
A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said using the figures as an indication of staffing issues was ‘misleading’, as temporary closures were ‘well-rehearsed safety measures which trusts use to safely manage peaks in admissions’.
The closures included Weston Area Health NHS Trust, which shut its maternity unit for three weeks in January 2017. The Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust closed 33 times in 2017, with 24 of these closures because of ‘insufficient midwifery staffing or workload’. The trust closed for the same reason 30 times in 2016.
The Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust and Weston Area Health NHS Trust were approached for comment.
North Bristol NHS Trust’s maternity unit was also closed on 29 occasions in 2017, including for over a week over New Year from 31 December 2017 to 7 January 2018 due to ‘high activity’.
Director of midwifery at North Bristol NHS Trust, Rachel Fielding, said: ‘It is important to state that although the term ‘maternity unit closure’ is used, the entire maternity service is not actually closed to women in labour during these times.’
‘We must prioritise the safety of women giving birth with us and this means that on occasion we may try to divert women in labour coming into our central delivery suite, however when this happens we prioritise women according to their need on a case-by-case basis,’ Ms Fielding added.
She also assured that North Bristol NHS Trust maintains a 24/7 antenatal assessment unit, two birth centres and a home birth service alongside working with other local maternity units.
The DHSC spokesperson continued: ‘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.’
The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) chief executive, Gill Walton, said: ‘Maternity units must be closed when failing to do so will compromise the safety of the service and the care already being received by women and their babies.’
‘We know trusts are facing huge pressures to save money demanded by the Government, but this cannot be at the expense of safety. We remain 3,500 midwives short in England and if some maternity units regularly have to close their doors, it suggests there is an underlying problem around capacity staffing levels.’
Ms Walton also said the RCM was working with the Government and Health Education England ‘to ensure maternity services are safe and midwife numbers increase.’
However, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for health, Jonathan Ashworth, said: ‘Expectant mothers deserve reassurance that the local maternity unit will be there for them when needed.
‘It is a disgrace that almost half of maternity units in England had to close to new mothers at some point in 2017. The uncertainty for so many women just when they need the NHS most is unthinkable.’