England may not have enough midwives and maternity consultants to provide universally safe care because Government funding is “insufficient”, MPs have said, in the latest stark warning on the country's maternity care crisis.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said that despite an overall increase in the number of midwives, England was still short of 2,300 – a figure she described as “truly worrying”.
While reporting that “the vast majority” of mothers still had good experiences of NHS maternity care, the PAC said it had found evidence of hospital trusts being unable to employ enough midwives and consultants to provide “high quality, safe care”, suggesting that “available funding may be insufficient”.
“As things stand there is evidence that many maternity services are running at a loss, or at best breaking even,” Ms Hodge said.
She added that staff shortages heightened pressure on midwives and doctors working on the frontline, leading to “low morale” and “an appalling waste loss of talent”, amid evidence that one in three midwives with less than 10 years work experience now intends to leave the profession within a year.
The health minister Dr Dan Poulter said that the NHS was still “one of the safest places in the world to give birth”, adding that midwives numbers had gone up by 1,500 and “a record 5,000” were in training. However Labour said that the Government had failed on “cynical” pre-election promises to deliver 3,000 more midwives.
There were 700,000 live births in 2012, up by a quarter in the past decade, and having a baby remains the most common reason for hospital admission in England.
Maternity care cost the NHS £2.6bn in 2012-13. The National Audit Office recently found that one fifth of that budget – some £480m, or £700 per baby – goes on covering clinical negligence costs, which have risen by 80 per cent in just five years.
Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said that the high cost of negligence claims proved that “lack of investment and resources” were costing more in the long-run, causing “terrible consequences” for mothers and babies and taking a heavy financial burden on the NHS.
“You cannot get safe, high quality maternity services on the cheap,” she said. “At the moment there seems to be a gap between the actual cost of maternity care and the amount of money hospitals get to provide it. This cannot continue.”