THE campaign group bidding to save Berwick Maternity Unit is threatening to take legal action in a bid to force health chiefs to reopen the unit.
The Advertiser can reveal that campaigners have recruited a Newcastle-based solicitor, who will be writing to Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust early next week to demand the immediate reopening of the unit for safe or low-risk births.
The letter will also demand that adequate provisions are immediately put in place 24 hours a day to ensure the safety of pregnant women while the midwifery-led unit remains temporarily closed.
That would mean having an ambulance on standby in order to make a quick and safe transfer to Wansbeck Hosptial in Ashington.
Campaigners insist they are prepared to press ahead with legal action if the trust is not willing to accept their demands. Should it come to that, the case would go before a senior barrister before being taken to the high court.
The campaign group headed by mum of six Kelly Corrigan has until November 1 to initiate legal proceedings and challenge the trust’s decision to temporarily close the unit for births and immediate post-natal care.
Ms Corrigan said: “We are putting the steps in place to take it to a judicial review and make the trust accountable and answerable to the public in court.”
Less than 18 hours’ notice was given to staff and patients before the unit was suddenly closed due to safety concerns on August 1.
Medical director David Evans initially said there were safety concerns because midwives have been unable to maintain their birthing skills due to a drastic drop in the number of births at Berwick. The trust later explained that the closure was triggered by “two very serious incidents which compromised the safety of mothers and babies in our care.”
But campaigners are arguing that the interim closure is putting women at more risk because of a shortage of ambulances and the length of time it takes to travel to either Wansbeck or Borders General Hospital in Melrose.
“If the two incidents had happened at Wansbeck the unit would not have closed,” said Ms Corrigan. “It was only because of the ratio of incidents to births. But it’s unacceptable that no provision was in place to safeguard Berwick women when the unit closed. For two days Berwick women were left without any service or any means of emergency help, other than a phone number.”
More than 1,000 names have now been added to an online petition calling for the unit to be retained and the issue is due to be discussed at a public meeting in Berwick Town Hall on October 25.
The long-term future of the unit depends, firstly, on the outcome of an independent review commissioned by the trust into Berwick’s maternity services.
Trust officials admitted privately that all options are on the table, including permanent closure. However, should long-term changes be recommended as a consequence of the review the trust is obliged to begin a three-month period of full public consultation.
A spokeswoman for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said: “We are keen to move forward as quickly as possible and want people to be assured that we are listening. We expect our safety review to conclude at the end of October and as soon as the report is finalised we will share this publicly. In the meantime, together with our commissioners NHS North of Tyne, we will be attending the public meeting organised by Berwick Town Council on 25 October.
“We had to act very quickly in August because of our safety concerns but it is important to note that from the day we had to temporarily suspend births and postnatal inpatient care, the unit has remained open seven days a week for all antenatal, postnatal and consultant-led clinics. This is to provide all of the usual support for expectant mums and make sure everything is on track as they progress through pregnancy such as routine antenatal bookings and care for both low risk and high risk pregnancy.
“We are also continuing to provide full community midwifery support during the week with midwives visiting patients at home where necessary. During the temporary suspension, any expectant mothers who require medical assistance or advice outside of normal working hours can seek help by calling our team of midwives in Wansbeck on 01670 564194 – this number is available 24 hours a day.”