'Shocking' survey suggest one in four new mothers abandoned during labour

Women surveyed said they were not able to access pain relief quickly and that doses of painkillers were not big enough

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England’s midwife shortage has led to women being left alone for long spells during their labour, it was claimed today, as a survey uncovered growing concerns over the state of NHS maternity services.

One in four new mothers said they had been left alone at a time that worried them during their labour – described by the nursing and midwifery leaders as yet more evidence that too few midwifes were supervising hospital wards.

The findings came from the health watchdog the Care Quality Commission (CQC), following their 2013 maternity survey, the first in three years.

While there was a slight increase in the number of women who said they had confidence in care staff, up to 78 per cent, there was an increase in reports of being left alone as well as other worrying indications, including one in 10 women reporting that toilets on maternity wards were unclean.

More than 23,000 women who had a baby in February this year responded to the survey. In 2010, 22 per cent of women reported being left alone, a figure which has risen to 25 per cent this year.

The chief inspector of hospitals Sir Mike Richards said that some of the experiences described by respondents were “truly shocking”.

“I’m encouraged there are improvements but in too many cases, the quality of care delivered is just not good enough…” he said. “Feedback in the comments shows at times a truly shocking picture of experiences that should be the most joyous time in a woman’s life, not the most frightening.”

Around 10,000 women chose to comment personally on their care. Many said they were not able to access pain relief quickly and that doses of painkillers were not big enough.

Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), attributed the problems to midwife shortages. The College estimates that the NHS in England needs 4,800 more midwives to meet demand. Birth rates reached 40-year highs in 2012, with 700,000 being born. Despite a slight drop in the birth rate this year, midwives have warned the government against complacency.

The RCM had previously warned that the safety of women and new born babies was being put at risk by shortages.

“[This] survey shows that the NHS continues to fail too many women. It sets out yet more evidence of the real-life and disheartening effects on women of the shortage of midwives,” she said. “How many more flashing red lights do we need?”

Dr Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, agreed that staffing problems were the likely cause of patients being left unattended.

“It is promising to see improvements in a number of areas such as keeping women involved in decisions about their care and having trust in the staff providing their care, which is so important,” he said.

“However these results make it clear that there are still challenges to be met in maternity services, and it is particularly concerning that more women were left alone at a time that worried them during their birth than in 2010…” he said. “This is something which much be looked at urgently.”

Health minister Dan Poulter said that “a record 5,000” more midwives were currently in training and set to qualify in the next three years. 

But shadow public health minister Luciana Berger said that the David Cameron was “failing to deliver” on election promises that thousands more midwives would be appointed

“Ministers must explain why women feel that their concerns weren't taken seriously and a growing number were left alone during labour,” she said.