Maternity unit suspends births over staff shortage

A general view of Westmorland General Hospital
The unit, at Westmorland General Hospital, sees about two births a month [Google]

A maternity unit has temporarily suspended its birth services after "significant" staffing issues.

The birthing centre at Helme Chase Unit at Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal closed for six months on Friday, meaning those in the south Lake District who want to give birth at a hospital will have to travel to Barrow or Lancaster.

University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) said the decision had been "difficult", but it no longer had enough midwives to safely staff the unit.

Prenatal and postnatal care, as well as outpatient appointments, will continue.

The Department of Health and Social Care said it was "committed to ensuring all pregnant women have access to local maternity services" and was "reassured" by the unit's decision to continue providing other services as normal.

The suspension comes after a report recently revealed "significant issues" with the Helme Chase community, birth centre and home birth on-call availability.

'Extremely worried'

Helme Chase sees about two births a month and those who might be affected by the suspension are being contacted by the trust.

The unit is midwife-led, which means there are no doctors present. Women who have been identified with an uncomplicated pregnancy can choose to give birth there.

Sue Stansfield, Interim Director of Midwifery at UHMBT, said that, despite ongoing recruitment work, there were not enough available midwives to safely staff the unit.

She added the suspension period would allow the trust "to review" the way it used colleagues.

However, there are fears closure could become permanent, with Westmorland and Lonsdale Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron setting up a petition in response.

It calls on the government to give Morecambe Bay Trust "the money and resources to properly staff Helme Chase so we can save our local maternity ward from permanent closure and give the unit a new lease of life after years of underinvestment".

Mr Farron said: "I am extremely worried that this six-month suspension will not only impact local mums in the near future, but it could also pave the way for Helme Chase to be closed for good."

He added it was "disappointing" that the trust had given 12 hours notice before suspending birth services.

“The government must provide a package to help the trust recruit and retain the staff they need so that Helme Chase can not only survive but thrive," he said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "We are investing an additional £186m a year to improve maternity and neonatal care.

"Since 2010, the number of midwives has increased by 21.5% and we are funding an additional 160 new midwifery posts over three years and increasing the number of nursing and midwifery places to 58,000 by 2032."

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