South Tyneside District Hospital has operated a midwife-led birthing unit since 2019 as part of controversial changes under the Path to Excellence programme, following the merging of Sunderland and South Tyneside’s hospital trusts.
The unit provides for women with low-risk pregnancies who have not experienced any complications, with other births looked after by consultant-led care at Sunderland Royal Hospital.
The change has attracted criticism from campaigners, who see it a downgrading of hospital services in South Shields, and opponents say the present situation at maternity unit with parents being diverted to Sunderland for births does not instill confidence in the Pathway to Excellence programme.
Hospital bosses have stressed the birthing centre at South Tyneside is not closed, but a small number of births have had to be diverted to Sunderland Royal Hospital service due to its maternity service being ‘extremely busy’ and facing significant staffing pressures, adding the situation was not unique and other areas were facing similar issues.
A spokesperson for South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust said: “Our maternity services are currently extremely busy and pressure on our midwifery staffing numbers has meant a very small number of women who had planned to give birth in South Tyneside District Hospital have delivered their babies at Sunderland Royal Hospital instead.
“All antenatal care continues to be delivered as usual from both hospital sites in South Tyneside and Sunderland.
“The safety of our mums-to-be and babies will always be our absolute number one priority and as we manage these significant operational pressures we are of course in touch with the women under our care.”
It comes after the Trust said on Thursday it was pressing ahead with a shake-up that would see South Tyneside District Hospital provide only planned operations. A consultation will be launched later this year.
The move – which has been under discussion since 2016 – would mean all emergency operations and some planned procedures taking place at Sunderland Royal Hospital.
Roger Nettleship, chairman of the Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign (SSTHC), said: "SSTHC has a meeting on Monday and will discuss the updated document (on the move) to see if we have any response at this stage, when we and so many have not been involved in their working ideas and the public who need these services are yet to be consulted.”
Commenting on the situation with the maternity unit, he said: "It is rather ironic that (the Trust is) issuing a press release championing their draft Path to Excellence programme for surgery when the Phase 1 of their Path to Excellence programme for maternity is certainly not the path to excellence they promised.
"Previously we had two full maternity services in both hospitals."
It follows on from changes to children’s A&E implemented at South Tyneside District Hospital in August.
Children’s A&E had already closed overnight at the South Tyneside site in August 2019.