Ongoing closure of two Oxfordshire birth centres will be reviewed within the next fortnight
Cotswold Birth Centre, Chipping Norton, and Wantage Maternity Unit have been closed to intrapartum care – births involving healthy women and babies where complications are not expected – since August 2021 due to “staffing problems”.
A presentation to Oxfordshire County Council’s Joint Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee in mid-March said “the aim is to put a plan in place to reopen these units in March 2022” but the problem got worse.
Horton Midwifery Led Unit, Banbury, was closed to intrapartum care twice in March, Wallingford Maternity and Birthing Centre 16 times and Oxford University Hospitals (OUH) NHS Foundation Trust’s home birthing service was suspended no fewer than 24 times.
Sam Foster, chief nursing officer at the trust, said the staffing position was now the “healthiest it has been for a number of months” but that safety had to remain the priority, despite clamours for services to be reinstated.
“Understandably, this is something the general public is very worried about, and indeed the staff,” she said.
“Every time we suspend a service, that decision is taken at executive level and instantly reported. We review the staffing and the opportunity to reopen as soon as possible but as colleagues will know, we have been unable to progress the opening of Chipping Norton or Wantage.
“Six women have been directly affected throughout this period, three of those in March.
“Pressures are reducing, there is more hope of reducing the risk of those suspensions. We are currently undertaking an options appraisal, the service is due to present that to our trust management executive within the next fortnight so we can consider our options for reopening.
“We are completely aware of the continued review next month, review next month, but in all honesty we have had 35 per cent absence from the maternity services in total due to maternity leave, long Covid sickness and other unplanned leave. We have had to maintain safe staffing.
“On a positive note, we have not had to undertake any diversions to units outside of Oxfordshire and at no time have we not been able to meet one-to-one care during delivery.”
The trust’s report revealed it has vacancies that equate to 11 full-time midwives – and it is expecting to lose another two by July – and 12 midwifery support workers.
To mitigate that, 35 students and 16 external applicants are set to be interviewed for the midwife roles this month (May), while there is a “programme of ongoing recruitment” for support workers plus plans to bring in midwives from overseas.
Ms Foster added that the trust’s proactive approach to recruitment had prevented the situation from being worse.
“It is not unique to us, in fact we are in a slightly healthier position,” she said.
“We made a decision around this time last year to over recruit so that stood us in really good stead, despite the significant absence at the moment.
“I think the key area of focus is retaining the newly-qualified midwives when they have done their two-year programme at the OUH. It is as much about retention as it is recruitment.