- Patients at the Royal Berkshire in Reading have been sent to Swindon
- Figures show some units have been shut to new births for up to two days
- Leeds NHS Trust has turned away women 220 times so far this year
- The shock figures were uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act
Hospitals are struggling to cope with growing numbers of older or obese mothers and the rising birthrates caused by record levels of immigration.
Some women have been forced to travel as far as 50 miles to have their babies.
Figures uncovered using freedom of information laws show that 45 of 93 NHS maternity units closed their doors at least once in 2015.
Women were turned away on at least 575 occasions, compared with 461 times in 2014.
Experts said the findings were very worrying. ‘Most women in labour are already anxious, so to find that their maternity unit is closed can be a shattering blow,’ said Elizabeth Duff, of the National Childbirth Trust.
Louise Silverton, director of midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives, warned closures were very distressing for mothers forced to find somewhere else to give birth.
She added: ‘If units are regularly and persistently having to close their doors it suggests there is a serious, underlying problem around capacity and staffing levels that needs urgent attention.’
In most cases, the maternity units blamed either ‘high activity’, a lack of beds or a shortage of midwives.
Some remained shut for two days. Women were told to travel by car or taxi to the next nearest available unit.
Patients at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading have been sent on 50-mile journeys to the Great Western Hospital in Swindon. It has closed its doors 29 times this year, including once for 48 hours.
Leeds NHS trust has turned women away 220 times this year – more than four times a week. It says that staffing is partly to blame.
Heidi Alexander, Labour’s health spokesman, obtained the figures. She said: ‘It’s nothing short of a scandal that at such an important time, expectant mothers are told there’s no room at the hospital. Behind these statistics are awful stories of mums being turned away due to a shortage of staff and beds.’
The freedom of information survey obtained responses from 93 of the 138 maternity units in the country. It means the total number of units that were forced to close – and the total number of women turned away – could be far higher.
|Part of the problem is due to the increase in the numbers of women in their 40s who are giving birth as well as those coming from abroad|
The Royal College of Midwives has repeatedly warned that the rise in older mothers and the obese is putting extra strain on maternity units.
They tend to have more complicated labours involving caesareans or other interventions and require dedicated attention from staff.
Figures show the number of women giving birth in their forties has increased by 78 per cent over the past decade.
Migrants are creating added pressure because those coming to this country tend to be young couples wanting to start large families.
Justine Roberts, of Mumsnet, said where a birth ends up taking place was one of the biggest issues discussed on her parenting website. Earlier this month a survey of 20,600 women by the Care Quality Commission watchdog found that a quarter had been left alone at a time that worried them during their labour.
This included 11 per cent who were on their own just before the birth. Another quarter said they were unable to summon help from a midwife.
The Royal College of Midwives estimates that the NHS needs an extra 2,500 more practitioners on top of the 26,400 currently in post to deal with the extra pressures.
Just over 695,000 babies were born in England in 2014, and although this has fallen slightly in recent years it is still almost a fifth higher than a decade ago.
A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘We expect all mums and mums-to-be to receive high quality, safe care when they need it.
‘That’s why there are already 1,600 additional midwives since 2010, as well as 6,000 currently in training and we are investing £10billion to fund the NHS’s own plans for the future.
‘But we know that there is more to do – the NHS is undertaking a major review of maternity services to modernise care for women and their babies across England.’