Vancancies for midwives have reached record levels because poor pay and overwork is causing an exodus from the profession, the Royal College of Midwives warned yesterday.
The shortage of staff has become so severe that it is now "likely to affect the care which mothers and newborns receive", Dame Karlene Davis, the general secretary of the college, said.
Unless midwifery was made more attractive as a career, the Government would fail to meet its targets to boost midwifery numbers by 50 per cent by 2009, she added. A survey by the RCM shows that more maternity units than ever have unfilled posts and the national vacancy rate for England, at 6.3 per cent, is the highest recorded by the college.
The problem is greatest in London, where 13 per cent of positions are vacant. But shortages have worsened in every other region of the country, and particularly the South-east, a college survey showed.
Among those leaving the profession are experienced midwives in their forties and fifties who have become "increasingly disillusioned", and newly qualified staff who are quitting to pursue other careers.
The shortages mean that few women have the sole attention of a midwife if they give birth in an NHS hospital, RCM officials said.
The Government has set a target of recruiting 2,000 extra midwives by 2004 and a total of 10,000 over the next seven years. As part of this campaign, ministers hoped to have 500 additional staff in posts by this September.
But the RCM said that the latest figures from the Department of Health showed that the total number of midwives in posts had fallen from 23,075 midwives last September to 23,030 in March this year, a decrease of 45 staff.
Dame Karlene said: "These figures concern us greatly as this is likely to affect the care which mothers and newborns receive. As those leaving are both experienced and newly qualified midwives, this is putting more pressure on those who continue to practise."
She added: "We must make midwifery a more attractive profession to enable us to stop this exodus and ensure that Government recruitment targets are met."
The RCM says midwives, who are likely to earn no more than £25,000, must be given substantial pay rises as part of negotiations to introduce new terms and conditions for nursing staff.
Dame Karlene added: "The Government must demonstrate that it values midwives and the work they do by ensuring that negotiations on new pay and conditions for NHS staff deliver for midwives."
Jacqui Smith, a Health minister, said the Government was determined to meet its targets to increase staffing levels. She said: "We may be seeing some short-term problems but overall we have seen considerable increases.
"The trend is in the right direction. What's more important, we are taking action to make sure that continues, more midwives in training, action to bring back into the profession midwives who have left it."
Ms Smith said she accepted that the Government faced "a challenge" to meet its target of increasing the number of midwives in the health service.