Maternity SOSMidwifery is in a state of crisis and unless the government acts quickly, Penny Hosie fears there will be more infant and maternal deaths   

It’s a shame that it has to take the deaths of 16 babies and 2 mothers in Morecambe Bay – all victims of substandard care – and a GMTV Daybreak expose by Fiona Phillips to highlight that midwifery is in crisis.

This is something the Royal College of Midwives has been vocal about for at least three years. They cite Prime Minister David Cameron’s broken promises and last year’s petition to Downing Street, which contained more than 75,500 signatures and called for an additional 5,000 midwives. Little or nothing has been forthcoming, however, on the part of the prime minister or his government.

The reasons behind the petition were clear. Many midwives are retiring, the population has soared (with a subsequent knock-on effect on the birth rate) and there has been an increase in demanding births (more complicated pregnancies due to older mothers, obesity, etc).

One of the Morecambe Bay babies died as a result of ingesting meconium (a midwifery term for fecal matter, which during labour can indicate fetal distress).

Having had two emergency caesareans in similar circumstances, I am fully aware that this was an entirely preventable death. I was fortunate enough to receive excellent care at my local teaching hospital in Lewisham – the same hospital now under threat due to the government’s decision to downgrade the maternity and A&E units because of a neighbouring borough’s hospital PFI debt. The thought of mothers around the UK lacking this emergency medical care because of the closure of their local maternity and A&E units makes my blood run cold – and there is a real fear that the next Morecambe Bay scandal could occur in the leafy South East London suburbs.

Local press in the area have long reported on mothers in the final stages of labour being turned away from the maternity units at King’s College Hospital in Camberwell and Queen Elizabeth in Greenwich. This comes as no surprise considering these hospitals are also stretched beyond breaking point. This makes a mockery of the government’s reasoning that accessing maternity and A&E services at both hospitals are a reasonable and easy-to-access alternative to Lewisham.

Believe me, they are not. Both are 40 minutes away (or more in rush hour traffic), and I am mystified that the health minister Jeremy Hunt disregards this fact. The upshot is that a decision has been made that could place the lives of many mother and babies at risk.

It angers me that the government is spending yet more money on expensive consultations and structural reorganisation when that money could be better spent on improving maternity services and recruiting more midwives and nurses to ease the pressure on existing ones.

The sad fact is that midwifery was in crisis BEFORE it was announced that A&Es and maternity units across England were threatened with closure, and the government simply hasn’t listened.

Indeed, it’s also clear the government is ignoring the shocking statistic that 17 babies are stillborn EVERY day in the UK. Research published in 2011 in The Lancet medical journal found that Britain compares badly with many developed countries, ranked 32nd out of 35 countries with a rate of 3.5 deaths per 1,000 births.

Shockingly, this puts Britain on the same level as countries such as Belarus. Finland and Singapore rate highest, with Pakistan having the worst levels.

Countries such as Australia, which has invested heavily in research into stillbirths, have managed to bring their rates down. In Britain, the figures have not changed in 10 years.

This grim statistic is something charities such as Sands (the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity) and Bliss (which offers support and care to premature babies) campaign on and work tirelessly to reduce. Although this figure includes the deaths of babies with deformities, severe illnesses and sepsis infections, it also includes too many unnecessary and preventable deaths due to neglect.

It will be a travesty if, in spite of all the advances in medical research, there is a rise in baby deaths in the next 10 years resulting from similarly shoddy circumstances referred to in those tragic cases in Morecambe Bay.

Although nothing will bring these babies back, if Fiona’s report and the cover up by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) forces the government to take action, then it will be a small comfort for the parents of these bereaved babies and others whose babies have died unnecessarily.

We owe it to these bereaved families and we owe it to all our babies. But let’s be clear, it shouldn’t take the shameful and unnecessary deaths of more mothers and babies to force their hand.