Demand forces temporary closures at one third of maternity units

Figures show average unit closed eight times in the past year, and Royal College of Midwives says services cannot cope with rising demand and inadequate resources.

More than a third of maternity units have shut their doors to labouring women at some point in the past year because they could not cope with demand, senior midwives have warned.

Nine in ten heads of midwifery said their unit was dealing with more complex cases than it had last year.
Picture: iStock.

New figures from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) show that 38.6% of maternity units in the UK were forced to shut temporarily in the past year.

A poll of heads of midwifery revealed that units closed their doors on 281 separate occasions. 

The RCM said the average unit closed temporarily eight times, but one shut its doors 50 times. Eight units had to close their doors on 10 or more occasions.

Rising demand

The RCM, which is holding its annual conference in Harrogate, said the number of closures was a reflection of the rising demands on services, as well as increasingly complex births and issues with staffing levels.

The poll, which was completed by 53% of heads of midwifery around the UK, found that nine in ten believed their unit was dealing with more complex cases than it had last year.

Almost two in five of the 85 senior midwives who responded said they did not have enough midwives to cope with the demands on the service, while 19% said their budget had decreased in the past year.

Around 10% said they had to reduce services in the past year, including reductions in parent classes and breastfeeding and bereavement support.

Four in five also reported that they had needed to redeploy staff to cover essential services, meaning staff who were supposed to be delivering antenatal and community care instead covered labour delivery suites.

‘Not sustainable’

‘Yet again we are seeing senior midwives describing services that are being battered by increasing demands, inadequate resources and staffing shortages,’ said RCM chief executive Cathy Warwick.

‘These results show that midwives have never been so challenged in their ability to continue to provide high quality care for women and their families.

‘This situation isn't sustainable and the government must start to invest in NHS staff because we all know that an investment in staff is an investment in high quality, safe care.’

A separate poll from the RCM, released this week, revealed that inadequate staffing levels were prompting midwives to leave the NHS.

‘Dangerous’ conditions

The study of more than 2,700 midwives found some were working in ‘dangerous’ conditions, doing 12-hour shifts with no break and worrying about making mistakes, with some looking after as many as 15 mothers and babies at a time.

Ms Warwick criticised the government’s ‘disastrous’ policy of pay restraint in the NHS, adding: ‘Midwives and maternity support workers are working harder than ever at the same time as they have had 6 years of real-terms cuts to their pay.

‘There is a growing shortage of staff, and midwives tell us because of the demands they face they are intending to leave midwifery, making the shortage worse.’

A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘There are over 1,800 more midwives on our maternity units since 2010, as well as 6,400 currently in training, with our changes to student funding creating thousands more training places by the end of this parliament.’