Tackling preventable maternal and baby deaths is a key priority - Victoria Atkins

I want to reform our NHS and care system to make it faster, simpler and fairer for all of us - and that includes women. The NHS diagnosed me with type 1 diabetes at the age of three. So, I have seen the very best of the NHS. But I have also seen some of its darker corners. One of those darker corners was when I was pregnant.

Pregnancy with type 1 diabetes can be a very medicalised process and there came a point in the pregnancy when it became clear that the baby was going to have to be delivered early.

So, I was rushed into hospital - and the hospital that looked after me amazingly well simply did not, at that point, have the facilities to look after someone who was both very early in pregnancy, but also with complications.

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They put me in a ward with women who had just given birth - literally rushed from theatre - who had had very traumatic experiences. People will understand how deeply worrying - and dare I say it, frightening - it was to be lying in that ward with women who had gone through, frankly, a hellish experience. Who were in agony, who were needing very urgent medical treatment. And for me to be there ready to have my baby.

A mother holds the hand of a new-born baby. PIC: Dominic Lipinski/PA WireA mother holds the hand of a new-born baby. PIC: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
A mother holds the hand of a new-born baby. PIC: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Looking back, I know that everybody was doing their best. But I desperately want to ensure that women who are expecting and who find themselves needing a bit of extra help are not in that situation, and they’re not facing the fear that I faced.

So, I absolutely get it and it is very much personal for me. But I want to set out some of the policies this year that will help light the way to better health and happiness for women.

Two hundred and ninety three is the number of women who died in pregnancy or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy in the three years between 2020 and 2022.

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That number means that 293 families are grieving the profound loss of a mother - who will also be someone’s daughter, partner, wife, sister or friend.

Their babies who have lived - their loss is indescribable. They will never know the warmth of their mother’s cuddle. The tinkle of her laughter. Or the limitless love that we have for our children.

Not all of these deaths are linked to poor maternity care, but many will be and this must stop.

Important, and frankly stark, reviews into maternity services have identified how, why and where mistakes happen and harm is done.

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In response, NHS England has set out a large programme of work to tackle this through its maternity and neonatal services plan.

This includes the establishment of 14 maternal medicine networks across England. Which will ensure that women with medical conditions that pre-date, or develop during pregnancy, from cardiac disease to diabetes, all receive the specialist care they need.

Fairer access to services must be achieved, and underperforming trusts must shape up.

To achieve this, a Maternity Safety Support Programme is giving underperforming trusts assistance before serious safety issues arise.

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I will give these and other measures my full backing to support families and to end preventable maternal and baby deaths because the birth of a child should be among the happiest moments of our lives.

An abridged version of a speech by Health and Social Care Secretary, Victoria Atkins, at the Woman's Health Summit.

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