South Shields MP to raise future of birthing unit at South Tyneside District Hospital at Prime Minister's Questions

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A South Tyneside MP is to raise fears over the future of the borough’s midwife-led birthing unit with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck told a public meeting at Ocean Road Community Association that she would raise residents’ concerns at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

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Staffing issues have previously forced the trust to suspend services, diverting mums-to-be to Sunderland instead, but the latest shutdown has prompted fears the temporary measure could become permanent if a solution is not found.

Ms Lewell-Buck was speaking at a meeting called by the Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign (SSTHC) group, which has campaigned against the transfer of services to Sunderland Royal Hospital under the Trust’s ‘Pathway to Excellence’ scheme.

Under the scheme, mothers can elect to give birth at South Tyneside but will not have access to an onsite consultant, with anyone who needs emergency intervention transferred to Sunderland by ambulance.

Ms Lewell-Buck said those opposed to the change feared at the time it was a ‘prelude to full closure of the maternity unit’ and she took ‘zero pleasure’ in seeing the present situation develop after those predictions.

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“We know, as has been the case in other areas, that this could result in a situation where no more babies would be born in South Tyneside,” she said.

South Tyneside Hospital Ingham Wing entrance.South Tyneside Hospital Ingham Wing entrance.
South Tyneside Hospital Ingham Wing entrance.

The MP paid tribute to the hard work and dedication of staff at the hospital.

"The midwife-led unit opened in 2019 and hundreds of little ones have been safely born there – that is a testament to our amazing NHS midwives who have been in the front line, risking their lives for others right throughout the pandemic,” she said.

But Ms Lewell-Buck said many people did not even realise the unit was presently closed.

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“I met an expectant mum at the weekend and she did not know,” she said. “She was told she could have her baby in South Tyneside.”

Emma Lewell-Buck addresses the meeting, flanked by Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign chairman Roger NettleshipEmma Lewell-Buck addresses the meeting, flanked by Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign chairman Roger Nettleship
Emma Lewell-Buck addresses the meeting, flanked by Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign chairman Roger Nettleship

SSTHC chain Roger Nettleship said it was important both South Tyneside and Sunderland had full maternity services.

“When they held the consultation about Pathway to Excellence, they said it was not about saving money,” he said.

"But when you read the document, it said they were going to save £1million, which meant there were a lot of midwives who were going to go.

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"When they downgraded it, they thought all the consultants and midwives would go to Sunderland – that has not happened.

“If you are going to have a proper health service, you need a proper maternity service, in South Tyneside as well as Sunderland. You need a full service – community midwives, midwifery-led unit but also access to consultant-led specialist services.”

Former councillor Angela Hamilton said she did not believe the Trust had any intention to reopen the unit.

"I think this is just their way to take another service from South Tyneside and put it into Sunderland,” said Ms Hamilton.

Children's A&E is another service at the South Tyneside site which has seen changes in recent years.

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Ms Hamilton said changes would put more pressure on other hospitals in the region, she said, fearing it would leave Sunderland Royal Hospital struggling to cope.

“That hospital was not set up to deal with that number of patients,” she said.

"More and more people are telling me they are going to have their babies in Gateshead or at the RVI.”

One woman, who did not wish to give her name, said she was a midwife who had been transferred to Sunderland from South Tyneside.

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She said staff had been left in the dark over the unit’s future by managers, adding: “Nobody has come to tell the ward manager what plans are in place. All the staff were just relocated to Sunderland.”

However, the Trust has said it has communicated fully with staff.

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The meeting heard some staff were unhappy about working conditions at Sunderland Royal, with fears the situation was having an impact on the turnover of staff and the care given to expectant mothers.

Jarrow MP Kate Osborne was unable to attend but sent a message of support.

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Asked it was possible to work with other North East MPs, given the possible knock-on effect on services elsewhere, Emma Lewell-Buck singled out her Washington and Sunderland West colleague for praise.

“I know Sharon Hodgson has been incredibly supportive of the campaign,” she said.

"She sees that Sunderland can’t cope with the influx of people, so that will impact on her constituency.”

The Gazette contacted the South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Trust after the meeting for a response.

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Melanie Johnson, executive director of Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health Professionals at the trust said it remained committed to reopening the unit as soon as possible.

“We are determined to reopen our Midwifery Led Birthing Centre (MLBC) as soon as we possibly can. It is a vital part of our maternity service which we are very proud of,” she said.

“The simple facts are that we have a lot of midwives away from work at the moment,” she added.

"This is due to sickness, other planned leave and still some staff who need to self-isolate due to COVID-19. It has been a really difficult time for our midwives.

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"Our staffing pressures have meant some really tough decisions but safety must always come first.

“We have work under way to strengthen our workforce in maternity and are investing over half a million pounds to expand our midwifery teams. All of these efforts should help ease the staffing challenges.

“We don’t yet know exactly when the MLBC will reopen but as soon as we can confirm a date, we will shout this from the rooftops.

"In the meantime, we are making sure all of our mams-to-be have the information they need. We also meet regularly with staff to keep them up-to-date."