A recent freedom of information request submitted by the Labour Party has shown that, among those trusts that responded, English maternity units temporarily closed their doors to new admissions 382 times in 2016.

Overall, 96 of the 136 English hospital trusts responded to the freedom of information request. Their responses showed that 42 had temporarily closed their maternity wards on at least one occasion during 2016. The most common reasons for the closures were insufficient beds or too few staff. Some closures lasted more than 24 hours while others were overnight.

The maternity unit at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust closed its doors 10 times in 2016 due to staffing, high activity and capacity issues. East Cheshire NHS Trust closed eight times because of “full cot occupancy” in its neo-natal unit. The Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust was closed on 30 occasions due to “insufficient midwifery staffing for workload”.

A spokesperson for the Royal College of Midwives, quoted in a BBC article, pointed out that there are occasions when it is right to close a maternity unit and divert new admissions to another hospital. However, if this is happening on a regular basis, it could reflect underlying problems with the number of expert staff which needs attention. There is currently a shortage of 3,500 full-time midwives and these figures highlight the pressures on maternity services in England.

In comparison with May 2010, there are now more than 2,000 additional midwives with a further 6,500 in training. A Department of Health spokesperson said: “Temporary closures in NHS maternity units are well rehearsed safety measures which we expect trusts to use to manage peaks in admissions.” She also explained that it was misleading “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…because maternity services are unable to plan the exact time and place of birth for all women in their care.”

Elizabeth Duff, senior policy adviser for The National Childbirth Trust, asserted that is was “appalling” that pregnant women “are pushed from pillar to post in the throes of labour”. “New maternity policy in England stresses the need for locally based services which must have enough midwives so that women are not turned away.”

Camilla Wonnacott, an associate in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches LLP, who specialises in birth injuries and cerebral palsy claims, commented: “It is very important that maternity units are not overstretched and that sufficient experienced staff are on hand. When resources are inadequate, there is a risk that even the most dedicated staff can find themselves delivering sub-standard care. The consequences during birth and in the neo-natal period can be life-changing for babies, mothers and their families. While there are a number of current initiatives for improving maternity services, such as NHS England’s Maternity Transformation Programme and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ initiative Each Baby Counts, we urgently need to see actual improvements in day-to-day care for mothers and babies.”