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Atkins accepts calls for national maternity care plan after birth trauma report

(Yui Mok/PA)
(Yui Mok/PA)

The Health Secretary has accepted calls for a national strategy to improve maternity services after a damning report into birth trauma found poor-quality care is “all too frequently tolerated as normal”.

Victoria Atkins said “watch this space” as she pledged to set out a plan for how to make the system “faster, simpler and fairer” after “harrowing” stories were revealed during evidence from 1,300 people.

It comes after the all-party parliamentary inquiry into birth trauma, led by Tory MP Theo Clarke and Labour MP Rosie Duffield, concluded that women are often “treated as an inconvenience”.

The inquiry made a raft of recommendations including the creation of a national strategy to improve care.

In a speech at the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on birth trauma on Monday, Ms Atkins said: “I know there is so much work to do to deliver on the detailed findings of this report and I, together with NHS England, fully support the APPG’s call to develop a comprehensive cross-government national strategy for maternal care.

“I’m very grateful to the NHS for the progress that has been made so far on the three-year delivery plan for maternity and neonatal services, but I want to go further and a comprehensive national strategy will help us to keep driving that work forward while making sure everyone across government and the health service are crystal clear about what we need in maternity services to focus on.

“And I also want to be clearer to mums and those looking after them what their rights and expectations should be, so that everybody can be clear about the standard of care that mums deserve. So watch this space.”

Among a host of other recommendations in the report was the recruitment and retention of more midwives and the creation of specialist standardised postnatal services to give women a “safe space” to speak about childbirth experiences.

Health minister Maria Caulfield said maternity services “have not been where we want them to be” and apologised when she was challenged about the findings of the report earlier.

She said the Government is already doing much of the work recommended in the report, telling Times Radio: “We absolutely recognise what’s in the report. We are on track with rolling out some of these services to prevent this from happening in the first place but, when it does, better look after women.”

Asked on Sky News whether an apology should be made to those affected by birth trauma, Ms Caulfield said: “Absolutely. I recognise as women’s health minister that maternity services have not been where we want them to be.”

Ms Caulfield cited mental health support teams across England for new mothers, and pelvic health services and an increase in the number of midwives.

She said the culture of “natural birth being the best birth” is changing and “mums should be getting a better experience and often that leads to safer births and better outcomes”.

Ms Clarke, who pushed for the inquiry after saying in Parliament that she felt she was going to die after giving birth in 2022, said there is an unacceptable “postcode lottery on maternity services”.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I remember pressing the emergency button after I’d come out of surgery and a lady came in and said she couldn’t help me, said it wasn’t her baby, wasn’t her problem and walked out and left me there – so we need to make sure there are safe levels of staffing.”

The report authors also called for new mothers and babies to have separate health checks at six weeks so a doctor can fully assess the mother’s mental and physical health and additional efforts to reduce the risk of birth injuries.

They recommended providing more information on birth choices for women and informing them about the risk of injuries in childbirth, and women’s choices about giving birth and access to pain relief being “respected”.

The time limit for medical negligence litigation relating to childbirth should be extended from three years to five years, they added.

In many cases the inquiry looked at, trauma was caused by “mistakes and failures” which were “covered up” by hospitals as they frustrated parents’ efforts to find answers, the authors wrote.

Women described being mocked or shouted at and denied basic needs such as pain relief in some instances, while maternity professionals reported a system in which “overwork and understaffing was endemic”.

“The picture to emerge was of a maternity system where poor care is all too frequently tolerated as normal, and women are treated as an inconvenience,” the authors wrote.

Gill Walton, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “Sadly, not all birth experiences are positive and poor experiences can have a devastating impact on women and should be taken very seriously as a threat to maternal mental and physical health and infant wellbeing.

“Undoubtedly staffing shortages drastically impact the safety and quality of care that midwives can and so want to deliver. Our own members tell us they are struggling to give women the time and quality of care they need and deserve.

“Also, with the rise in more complex pregnancies, having the right skill mix of staff on shift is key.

“Access to appropriate training has also been highlighted in this report and when there aren’t enough midwives, crucial training is often postponed and this impacts how prepared staff can be for not only emergency situations, but how improvements in day-to-day maternity care can be achieved.”

NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “The experiences outlined by women in this report are simply not good enough and not what the NHS wants or expects for patients.”

She said NHS England was working with local health bodies so “their teams can create and nurture a culture where women are listened to, their choices respected and care is personalised, equitable and safe”.