Premature babies 'at risk' from NHS staff shortages

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Premature babies are being put at risk because of a critical shortage of staff and facilities, MPs warn today.

Each of Britain's 178 neonatal units closed to new admissions an average of once a week last year with "major implications for patient safety", the report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee says.

Despite a big expansion in provision, the service has not kept pace with demand. There are an average of nearly three vacancies in each unit for nurses trained in neonatal care and a third of the units were operating above the recommended 70 per cent occupancy level.

Edward Leigh, the Tory chairman of the committee, said: "Constraints in capacity mean that the Department of Health is still struggling to meet the demand for neonatal services which has risen year on year.

"The serious shortages of neonatal nurses must be addressed. Only half of the networks provide round-the-clock transport services to transfer babies to other units for the right levels of specialist care. And high occupancy rates in a third of units could have major implications for patient safety, owing to increased risk of infection or inadequate staffing levels."

Dr Sheila Shribman, the Government's national clinical director for children, young people and maternity services, said NHS spending on neonatal services had increased by 22 per cent from £655m in 2003-04 to £802m in 2006-07.

"We have developed 23 neonatal networks across England to provide safe and effective services for mothers and babies. These networks are helping to increase the capacity of neonatal units with an additional 278 cots opening since 2005-06 ... However, we recognise that there is still more to do."