‘Closure by stealth’ fears for midwife unit

The future of a new midwife-led unit at a Yorkshire hospital could be in doubt after figures revealed numbers of women giving birth there are below the minimum required.

Amanda Owen with her daughter Annas

There was an outcry over the decision to downsize the maternity service at the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton with the creation of a unit for low-risk births which opened in October.

Latest figures reveal there have been 131 deliveries since it opened nearly seven months ago - about nine every fortnight.

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NHS chiefs estimated 500 women each year would be eligible to give birth at the unit.

But they warned it would be unsustainable if there were fewer than 300 deliveries annually.

A total of 1,250 babies were previously born at the hospital each year but now all high-risk births are dealt with further afield.

Figures show numbers of deliveries at the James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough rose by 250 following the downgrade in the five months to the end of February, up 15 per cent. Other mothers are giving birth in Darlington, Harrogate and York.

Coun John Blackie, leader of Richmondshire Council, said: “The midwives at the Friarage are absolutely marvellous but the issue always was and remains that midwife-led units usually face declining numbers and eventually close down because people want the reassurance of consultants being on hand just in case.

“I want the midwife-led unit to succeed but I fear if they don’t get the 300 a year they need, it won’t be long before there is a consultation over its closure. It would be very very sad for healthcare provision here in Richmondshire and in Hambleton.”

Shepherdess Amanda Owen, who lives in remote Ravenseat in Swaledale, has given birth to five of her seven children before reaching the Friarage due to the distance involved.

She is expecting to deliver her eighth child in two months and wants to give birth at home but because of the speed of her labour she has been told she is high risk and is due to give birth at the James Cook, some two hours’ drive away.

“We had a perfectly good hospital with doctors on call and everybody could go there to give birth but now a lot of people can’t go to the Friarage,” she said.

“I have no problem with a midwife-led unit but I do have a problem with the way it seems to me the whole service is being taken away from us by stealth.

“The next thing, whether they admit it or not, they will close the unit and everybody will be going to Middlesbrough.

“But it doesn’t matter how good the facilities are there if you can’t get there. I just feel our options are being taken away. At this rate, with what’s happening to local schools aned libraries and hospitals, we’ll be going to Middlesbrough for everything. It doesn’t encourage people to live round here.”

NHS Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said a six-month review of the unit will be published in four weeks.

“The CCG commissioned a midwifery-led unit and continues to be committed to it,” said a spokeswoman.

South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the unit, said: “Staff at the unit are looking forward to continuing to provide care for lots more mothers and babies at the centre and are planning an open day at the end of May to ensure all mums-to-be in the area are fully aware of the options they have available to them.”