Maternity care must be at the heart of Labour’s agenda for the NHS

After 13 years of the Tories, our NHS maternity services are in deep crisis. The latest threat is the proposal to close the maternity unit at the Whittington hospital, which serves the communities in Islington and Haringey. This is not an isolated issue: it speaks to wider challenges with maternity care that a Labour government must address.

During the summer, I attended the re-opening of the Whittington’s newly refurbished birthing centre. Midwives spoke with pride about the new facility and the care they deliver for the community.

But now the maternity unit is threatened with becoming the next casualty in a long line of Tory underinvestment in maternity care. A Freedom of Information request on staff shortages that I submitted to the Whittington Health Trust revealed that their birth centre had been closed for 17 days so far in 2023 – the highest figure for three years. Maternity services, and the women that use them, are paying the price for an NHS that is underfunded, understaffed and under-resourced by the Conservative government.

There has been a wider erosion of maternity care across the country. The Care Quality Commission, England’s healthcare regulator, recently told the BBC that maternity units have the poorest safety ratings of any hospital services that it inspects. Despite the clear set of recommendations from the Ockenden review, published after the maternity service scandal at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, stories of tragedy and sub-standard care continue to emerge. And a recent Royal College of Midwives survey revealed thousands of hours of free labour undertaken by midwives, as well as highlighting concerns of consistent understaffing.

It’s not just women who are paying the price for a broken system: it’s the NHS itself. The estimated cost of harm incurred by the NHS of maternity claims arising from incidents in the financial year 2022/23 was £6.6 billion. This is more than double the £3 billion a year that NHS England spends on maternity and neonatal care. With proper investment into maternity services, the NHS might actually save money on litigation.

After 13 years of the Tories decimating women’s healthcare, and maternity services in particular, it’s no surprise that Islington’s Whittington unit is under pressure. But despite these challenges, the Whittington continues to play a crucial role for the local community. Over three and a half thousand babies are delivered every year. It’s a site of innovative initiatives, such as setting up the first Covid vaccination hub in London for mothers, and it implemented the ‘Ockenden café’ to embed recommendations from the aforementioned report.

And that speaks to the heart of why we will fight to protect the unit from closure and why Labour needs to invest in maternity services across the country. They are the foundation for improved continuity of care and better outcomes for mothers and babies.

For example, Create Health Foundation, the women’s health charity of which I am a Trustee, recently published a report emphasising the importance of looking further back than labour or even pregnancy to improve the maternity experiences of BAME women. Care close to the community is fundamental to ensuring that women are supported from the moment they think about having children, rather than a fragmented system of care which offers isolated services as a one-off. Retaining healthcare services within communities is an important mechanism for reducing health inequalities and thereby reducing costs to the NHS.

If we want maternity care to thrive both at the Whittington and across the country, we need change on a national scale. We need the funds to refurbish maternity departments such as the one at the Whittington, and to prioritise bringing care closer to communities. This allows for early education and intervention, which is crucial to improving maternal outcomes. And alongside the Labour’s existing commitment to train thousands more nurses and midwives, we need a focus on retaining and valuing the staff we already have, so we can finally end the shortages.

This crisis in maternity care hasn’t come from nowhere. It’s no coincidence that the UK has one of the biggest gender health gaps in the G20: we’ve had 13 years of the Tories grinding the NHS into the ground. Improving outcomes and supporting care in maternity is a critical element of solving this inequity, and should be at the heart of Labour’s agenda for the NHS.

For more on health see No More Sticking Plasters: Labour’s Health Mission.