Cot shortage hits premature babies

Scores of women due to give birth to seriously premature babies are having to travel hundreds of miles around Britain because of a massive shortage of NHS intensive care cots.

Two 18-year-old girls from Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire were transferred from their local hospital, Watford General - one up to Great Yarmouth in Norfolk and the other to Nottingham. Another woman Joanne Taylor, 34, was taken by ambulance from London to Brighton, where her daughter was born on Christmas Day. The baby spent 68 days in an intensive care neo-natal cot.

Tracey Harrison was flown from Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, Devon, to St Mary's in Manchester by the RAF after complications developed with her triplets in the 28th week of her pregnancy. After 10 days, she was returned to Plymouth where she gave birth on 4 January. Ms Harrison said: "I was very distressed. The system is rubbish."

The transfers, which follow a £70m government initiative to provide better care for premature babies, have been harshly attacked by critics.

Research by Bliss, the premature baby charity, found that in London and the West Midlands more than 30 mothers a month were being sent around the country in search of the specialist cots.

"Neo-natal mortality rates are increasing and the number of babies that need care is on the increase. We are among the worst countries in Europe for infant mortality," Rob Williams, the chief executive of the charity, told The Sunday Times.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "In 2003 we announced an extra £70m over three years. It takes time to train neo-natal intensive care nurses and develop clinical networks. That is why this funding will take time to take effect."

Under the scheme, the number of centres caring for fragile babies has been reduced with the aim of centralising expertise and equipment. Critics say its main effect has been to cut the number of cots.

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