Staff at a leading maternity unit have called on their bosses to close the doors to patients when it becomes too crowded, claiming that working practices have become “unsafe” and that it could be a matter of time before “a major critical incident occurred”, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
After emergency talks with their professional body, the midwives at Craigavon Area Hospital made the extraordinary demand to close the doors to new patients because “inexperienced staff are being thrown in at the deep end” due to staff shortages.
However, the hospital management is unlikely to take that step, as the nearest maternity units are 20 miles away at Lagan Valley in Lisburn and Daisy Hill in Newry.
And Health Minister Michael McGimpsey insisted that the services were “of a very high standard, professionally delivered and safe”.
He added: “Over the past year I have visited maternity services at Craigavon hospital on a number of occasions and I can give these assurances to the women who use the services there.”
The Belfast Telegraph has obtained the minutes of a meeting held recently among the discontented midwifery staff, alleging that midwives are regularly being called away from already understaffed postnatal ward to the labour ward “leaving a skeletal staff and unsafe working conditions on the ward”.
The minutes further claim: “Staffing shortages are such that inexperienced midwives are being thrown in at the deep end and have no choice but to sink or swim. This is unfair both to them and to other midwives working alongside them who haven’t time to check their work of answer their queries.”
The nurses point out that in the financial year 2007-08 there were 3,795 births in Craigavon, an increase of almost 1,000 when compared with 2003-04, “and yet staff levels are at an all-time low”.
They also state that the Health Minister recently announced 12 new staff are being trained specifically for Craigavon, but that their training will take up to 18 months. In the meantime, they claim, midwives are working many hours of unpaid overtime.
“In any other business, employees would have taken strike action,” the minutes claim. “But due to the nature of maternity services, there is no option for staff here.”
Management at Craigavon say they cannot comment on what they term are “unsigned minutes”, but it is known that closing the maternity unit is not an option. The nearest maternity units are 20 miles away in Daisy Hill, Newry, and Lagan Valley, Lisburn.
And the Health Minister joined the argument when he said: “The pressures on maternity services at Craigavon are well recognised and reflect the additional 300 births over the 2007/08 period. I didn’t receive all the money I required in the budget, but I have allocated an additional £3.5m to Craigavon to strengthen services and provide additional recovery areas and delivery rooms, along with additional staffing. An additional 12 midwifery students have started training for the Southern Trust and seven midwives have been recruited by the Trust in the past few months.”
Mr McGimpsey added: “Resorting to anonymous leaks to the press is not the way to address issues when we have other ways of resolving them. These scurrilous allegations undermine the hard work of all staff and cause unwarranted worry to mothers-to-be.”
Meanwhile, Breedagh Hughes, NI Board Secretary of the RCM has backed the midwives, stating: “Their grievances are all genuine, but I have to say that the management at Craigavon are doing all in their power to resolve a complex situation, which can only be improved by the Department of Health.
“The facts are that the birth rate in NI has risen by 10% when all previous predictions were that it would fall. And in the face of that rise, there are fewer maternity beds in Northern Ireland than there were a few years ago and that has exacerbated things.The unexpected rise in immigration and the fact that the young indigenous population is staying in Northern Ireland now that peace has returned have seen the birth rate shoot up, and the Department has not matched this with investment.”
The chief executive of the Southern Health and Social Care Trust , Colm Donaghy, has told the midwives they must raise their concerns “through the appropriate |channels”.
“Our services deserve their reputation for providing a high standard of care,” Mr Donaghy added. “I look forward to announcing further developments in maternity in the coming months.”