A MATERNITY unit in the North East has been closed due to a decline in the number of births at the midwifery-led service.
Health bosses yesterday announced that they were temporarily shutting the unit at Berwick Infirmary from today following a significant reduction in births.
The number of babies born at the Northumberland hospital fell from 23 in 2010-2011 to just 13 in 2011-2012, raising fears that midwives are unable to maintain their birthing skills.
It is not yet known how long the unit will be closed for and discussions are ongoing into the long-term future of the service. No members of staff will lose their job and all antenatal and postnatal maternity services, as well as consultant-led high-risk clinics, will continue at the hospital.
Dave Evans, medical director at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said: “We pride ourselves on providing some of the best quality maternity services in England and that is testament to the hard work and commitment of all our midwives.
“The continuing decline in births at Berwick, however, has meant we’ve had to take this difficult decision.
“With such a low volume of births, our midwives are simply not getting enough opportunities to regularly practice their essential birthing skills which are paramount in being able to deliver high-quality, safe and effective midwifery care.
“We are now looking into the long-term future of the midwifery-led unit in Berwick working together with our commissioners and will, of course, engage with the public as we work with partners to reach a solution.
“I wholeheartedly appreciate this will be disappointing for those families who had planned to give birth in Berwick in the near future and for those who have experienced excellent care in the past, but the reduced volume in births has given us a real cause for concern which we must act upon.”
Discussions are taking place between Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and commissioners NHS North of Tyne to agree the next steps of the unit.
The closure is with immediate effect and the two expectant mothers who were due to have their baby at Berwick Infirmary are being supported in making an alternative birthing plan.
Women will now have the option to give birth at hospitals across the border or at Wansbeck General Hospital, in Ashington, Northumberland.
But, last night, union chiefs said it was essential that a risk assessment was carried out into how the changes will affect pregnant women in the area.
Estephanie Dunn, operational manager for the Royal College of Nursing said: “We want to see a full risk assessment of the new arrangements to demonstrate that the potentially longer journey times do not put the safety or quality of care of mothers or babies at risk.”
Research recently published by the NHS Confederation shows the average occupancy rate of standalone midwifery-led units in England is 30%. In Berwick this figure is less than 0.3% and births have fallen by more than 60% in the past four years.
Kath Mannion, local supervising authority midwifery officer for the North East, said: “In the current circumstances the temporary closure of the midwifery-led unit at Berwick Infirmary is the only way that we can be assured that midwifery services remain at the highest possible quality.
“Despite having some of the most highly-trained midwives in the region, sadly as less and less women choose to give birth in the midwifery led unit at Berwick it makes it hard for the local NHS to sustain a safe and effective service and this must now be looked at as a matter of priority.”