NHS: Families whose babies have died whilst in NHS care call for England-wide inquiry into maternity services

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The Maternity Safety Alliance has called for an England-wide inquiry into NHS maternity services in the wake of repeated scandals.

Families whose babies have died or been harmed whilst in the care of the NHS are calling for a statutory public inquiry into England’s maternity services.

The Maternity Safety Alliance, made up of bereaved families, has written to Health Secretary Steve Barclay asking for a nationwide investigation in the wake of repeated maternity scandals. This comes after the Care Quality Commission (CQC) revealed that 65% of maternity services or wards in England are regarded as 'inadequate' and 'require improvement' for health and safety reasons.

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Recent reports into failings at various NHS trusts - including Morecambe Bay, Shrewsbury and Telford, and East Kent - have also painted a damning picture of the poor care offered to some mothers and babies, and raised concerns over the culture at NHS maternity wards.

Donna Ockenden, who led the report at Shrewsbury and Telford, is heading an independent review of maternity services at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust. In other signs of the state of England's maternity care, parents whose babies died whilst in the hands of Leicester NHS Trust have called for their own review, and the CQC recently deemed Hull Royal Infirmary, which forms part of the Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, "not fit for purpose".

In the letter, the Maternity Safety Alliance say babies "are too precious to keep on ignoring the reality that, despite a raft of national initiatives and policies implemented in the wake of investigations and reports, systemic issues continue to adversely impact on the care of women and babies." In a statement, the Department for Health has said that £165 million has gone into improving neonatal services each year since 2021.

A newborn baby in the maternity ward at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey on May 22, 2020 in Frimley, United Kingdom. (Stock Image. Credit: Steve Parsons - Pool/Getty Images)A newborn baby in the maternity ward at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey on May 22, 2020 in Frimley, United Kingdom. (Stock Image. Credit: Steve Parsons - Pool/Getty Images)
A newborn baby in the maternity ward at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey on May 22, 2020 in Frimley, United Kingdom. (Stock Image. Credit: Steve Parsons - Pool/Getty Images) | Steve Parsons - Pool/Getty Images

The letter is signed by parents who have lost their babies whilst they were in the care of the NHS, including Emily Barley, whose daughter Beatrice died in 2022 at Barnsley Hospital after staff mistakenly monitored her heart rate instead of the babies.

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Other signatories include Jack and Sarah Hawkins, who played a crucial part in highlighting failings at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust after the death of their daughter, Harriet; as well as national patient safety campaigner James Titcombe, whose son Joshua died at Morecambe Bay.

"We are writing to you to demand a full statutory public inquiry into maternity safety in England," the letter began. It said that failures in NHS maternity care "continue to devastate lives in circumstances that could and should be avoided", as it insisted that "fundamental reform is needed".

“Over and over again we hear that ‘lessons will be learned’," the letter continued, "[but] those same failings continue. And they don’t just continue in isolated corners of the NHS, they are present to some degree in almost every NHS trust in England, with the most serious kind of avoidable harm occurring everywhere."

The Maternity Safety Alliance also argued that only a judge-led statutory public inquiry can command the confidence of families - as only then will it deliver a conclusion "free of party politics".

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A previous investigation into maternity services at Shrewsbury and Telford found that catastrophic failures may have led to the deaths of more than 200 babies and nine mothers, while a report into Morecambe Bay found that a "lethal mix" of failings at almost every level led to the unnecessary deaths of one mother and 11 babies. In East Kent, an independent review concluded that dozens of babies might have survived if they had received better care.

A spokesperson for the government's Department of Health said: "Every parent deserves to feel confident in the care they and their baby receive. We welcome the CQC's commitment to monitoring those trusts that are not providing an adequate standard, to ensure improvements are made.

"Nationally, we have invested £165m a year since 2021 to grow the maternity workforce and improve neonatal services and we are promoting careers in midwifery by increasing training places by up to 3,650 over the past four years. The CQC is also currently inspecting all NHS acute hospital maternity services that have not been inspected and rated since April 2021."

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