'No Sanddancers born in South Tyneside District Hospital' since birthing unit reopened, meeting hears
No babies have yet been born at a controversial birthing unit since it reopened in 2022.
Health chiefs have said they’ are committed to the future success of South Tyneside’s midwifery-led birthing centre (MLBC) following a temporary closure caused by ‘staffing issues’.
South Tyneside District Hospital’s MLBC was launched in 2019 as part of controversial changes under the Path to Excellence programme, which bosses said was aimed at improving services.
The changes followed the formation of the South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust, which saw two hospital trusts merge, with the birthing centre offering women ‘low-risk, problem-free pregnancies’ in a ‘home-from-home’ environment, according to Trust bosses.
Those assessed as having a high-risk pregnancy, such as people expecting twins or having experienced complications in current or previous pregnancies, were advised to give birth in the Trust’s consultant-led unit at Sunderland Royal Hospital.
If complications arose in South Tyneside, staff could contact the consultant-led unit at Sunderland and mothers and their midwives could be transferred to the Wearside site by ambulance if necessary.
However issues with the service were brought into focus at a recent inquest into the death of baby girl Charlotte Emma Warkcup on December 23, 2021, after she was transferred to Sunderland following failings at the birthing centre.
Coroner Derek Winter flagged concerns over the safety of midwife-led birthing centres to the Health Secretary, and also called on the Government to look at the recruitment and retention of midwives to ensure continuity of care.
Births at the South Tyneside MLBC were also suspended in January, 2022, due to staffing shortages at the height of the Covid-19 Omicron variant, with almost half of midwifery staff unavailable to work at the time.
A Care Quality Commission (CQC) report published in February, 2023, following inspection visits the previous year, rated South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust as ‘Requires Improvement’ overall, with specific recommendations around midwifery services.
An update to a recent meeting of South Tyneside Council’s People Select Committee revealed no births had taken place at the South Tyneside MLBC since it reopened for planned deliveries shortly before Christmas 2022.
Although low bookings were expected, a presentation to councillors explained, it was noted that many booked pregnancies at South Tyneside District Hospital later became “high-risk” and that births happened at other sites.
NHS bosses stressed they were committed to the future success of the borough’s birthing centre, which had delivered more than 400 babies before it ran into staffing challenges.
Despite working against a backdrop of national and regional recruitment challenges, councillors were told investment was being directed to strengthen and improve midwifery services locally.
This included £380,000 national funding per year, plus a Trust investment of £680,000 per year, into maternity services including frontline and specialist midwifery, neonatal nursing and more “supervisory time” for senior midwives.
Trust bosses said the local service had a focus on maternal mental health, as well as dedicated midwifery roles for public health and infant feeding and a lead midwife for “patient and staff experience”.
Efforts had also been made to create a more sustainable service, with one midwifery team covering both hospitals and community midwives working into both units to support.
NHS Trust representatives gave an update on the service at a meeting at South Shields Town Hall on Tuesday, February 14, following a request from the People Select Committee.
One speaker included Claire McManus, the Trust’s divisional director of family care, who outlined the national picture around maternity services.
The health chief said there was increased scrutiny and assurance around, and additional funding for, maternity services and that efforts were being made to ensure continuity of care within the Trust.
Some schemes included hybrid working, improved links with Sunderland University and international recruitment.
While some councillors were critical of the previous maternity service changes and South Tyneside birthing centre’s temporary closure, others said Central Government was to blame for NHS funding and staffing pressures.
Councillor Paul Dean said plans from staff to keep South Tyneside’s maternity unit running safely last year were ‘rejected’ by NHS management and added it was “sad that at the present time we’re not having any ‘Sanddancers’ born in our district hospital”.
Roger Nettleship, of the Save South Tyneside Hospital Campaign, also spoke at the meeting and criticised the Path to Excellence and previous decisions from NHS Trust leaders around services.
On staffing issues, he added a number of midwives had “voted with their feet” and left the service due to cultural issues within the Trust, as well as referencing criticism of the Trust’s maternity services in the recent CQC report.
The hospital campaigner also thanked the People Select Committee for arranging the meeting and said it was important for the hospital campaign to continue to be involved in scrutinising services.
Councillor John McCabe, chair of the council scrutiny panel, asked NHS bosses to return to give further updates on maternity services, as well as looking at improving patient transport.
In response to questioning, it was confirmed there were no plans for consultant-led maternity services to return to South Tyneside District Hospital.
Cllr McCabe, speaking directly to NHS Trust representatives, added: “If you’ve got an aim, and you have got an aim now, it has got to be realistic and achievable and I think from listening to what you’ve said, it is.
“I don’t want to go and revisit it but in 2019 we were given a piece of paper in here about the Path to Excellence and that everything was going to be rosy in the garden and everything would be great.
“You have got to have aims that are realistic and achievable and I think [now] you have proved you have got them”.