Opportunity On Midwife Shortage Despite Another Record-Breaking Year For Births

There is hope that the end of England's long-running midwife shortage could be in sight, but only if ministers seize on the opportunity presented by a dip in births after an 11-year boom, the chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has said, as the organisation prepares to launch its State of Maternity Services report 2013.

Maternity services in England continue to operate under intense pressure. Last year there were almost 700,000 babies born, the highest level for over four decades. The 2012 figure was up 23 per cent compared to 2001, with births in London leading the way with a staggering 29 per cent jump over the same period. The very latest figures however, for the first six months of this year, show a drop of 18,000 on last year's record-breaking high.

The report, which is being launched formally at an event in Parliament today [Wednesday 11th December], also finds growing complexity amongst the midwifery workload. Births to older mothers, for example, continue to rise far faster than for other age groups. There was an 85 per cent rise between 2001 and 2012, for example, in babies born to women in England aged between 40 and 44. These women typically require more care and time from midwives, meaning more midwives are needed overall even if birth numbers are no longer rising.

There are particular hotspots too for births to older mums. In five areas in the UK - East Renfrewshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Brighton and Hove, Wokingham, and Surrey - 30 per cent or more of all births in 2012 were to women aged 35 or older, based on figures from the Bounty Parenting Club member database. Other areas saw big jumps in the percentage of births to women in this age group. Luton saw the share of births to women aged 35 or above jump from 16 per cent of all births in 2011 to 20 per cent in 2012.

Commenting, RCM chief executive Professor Cathy Warwick said, "We are at a crossroads. The Government and the NHS must continue to train and recruit more midwives and, if the number of births stops rising, we might be able to reduce and perhaps even eventually eliminate the shortage. Alternatively, if the Government and the NHS choose to exploit what may be a temporary dip in the number of births and slash spending on midwife training and recruitment, they risk permanently embedding the midwife shortage. There is a big opportunity here, but a big risk too. Do we try to eliminate the stubborn midwife shortage, or do we just accept it?

"We are most definitely not out of the woods. Right now, we are still thousands of midwives short of where we need to be, as last month's National Audit Office report on maternity services found. This is a moment of opportunity. Will it be seized and the midwife shortage brought right down, or will the Government and the NHS take their eye off the ball in the face of a small easing of the intense pressure on our maternity services?

"The solution, if we are to provide good maternity services to women and their families, is to invest in midwives and maternity care on a consistent, long-term basis, not just in this Parliament but over the next Parliament too. Women want and deserve more choice over the care they receive and more continuity of care too.

"Do we want to end England's midwife shortage? Now is the moment of decision."

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Last revised: 11 December 2015
Next review: 11 December 2018