Nearly half of maternity wards in England were closed to new mothers at some time in 2016, according to data uncovered by the Labour party.
In a Freedom of Information request to England’s hospital trust, the opposition revealed that there were 382 separate occasions last year where maternity units had been forced to close their doors – up 70% since 2014. Of the responding hospital trusts, 42 said they were closed to new mothers some time during 2016.
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Some closures lasted more than 24 hours, while over ten trusts shut temporarily on more than ten separate occasions each. Hospitals reported capacity and staffing issues were most common reason for closures.
‘These findings show the devastating impact which Tory underfunding is having for mothers and children across the country, said shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth. ‘The uncertainty for so many women just when they need the NHS most is unthinkable.’
According to the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), the figures come as ‘no surprise’ due to issues of understaffing leaving England 3,500 full-time midwives short, as well as pressures to save money under government policy.
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RCM health and social policy head Sean O’Sullivan 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.
‘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.’
However, the RCM said it ‘respects and supports’ decisions to close units on grounds of safety for mothers and babies already being cared for.
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‘Nevertheless, if units are regularly and persistently having to close their doors it suggests there is an underlying problem around capacity and staffing levels that needs immediate attention,’ said Mr O’Sullivan. According to the Department of Health, there are now 2,000 more midwives working than there were in May 2010 and a further 6,500 midwives are being trained. They said that interpreting the figures as an indication of safe staffing issues was ‘misleading’ as many units would only be closed for ‘a matter of hours’.