EXPERT lawyers representing a pregnant woman and a young mum have mounted a legal challenge to the controversial closure of Berwick’s Maternity Unit, claiming there has been a lack of consultation with the public and a failure to provide suitable alternative care.
Specialist public law experts at Irwin Mitchell started proceedings to challenge the decision in court on Tuesday.
The action follows the unit’s sudden closure on August 1 this year, which left pregnant women in the town facing a round trip of over 80 miles to give birth, and also meant the NHS trust cannot cater for home births in the area.
The move by lawyers comes after “extreme concerns” were raised with them by pregnant women and women in Berwick who plan to have children in future, who fear the town could be cut off in winter, and are worried about long journeys to the nearest alternative hospitals.
Specialist public lawyers from Irwin Mitchell have now taken legal action on behalf of two local women affected by the changes, 25-year-old Tara Smith, who is three months pregnant, and Chanel Ryan, aged 18, who gave birth to her first child last year. Although Ms Ryan is not currently pregnant, she wants the midwifery-led unit to remain open to support others in future.
Both women would like to give birth in their home town and have joined the Save Berwick Maternity Unit campaign group, set up in response to the trust’s decision to temporarily suspend services, which has gathered anecdotal evidence of problems with transfers to alternative hospitals since the closure of the unit.
The group says both the midwives and the Berwick Maternity Unit are extremely well regarded, and both Tara and Chanel have previously used the unit for ante- and post-natal provision with ‘first class care’.
Alex Peebles, a public lawyer at Irwin Mitchell representing the women, said: “Our clients are not aware of any consultation with the public or those most closely affected by the decision to close the unit, despite there being clear obligations to consult set out in the National Health Service Act 2006.
“Tara is very concerned about her and her unborn baby’s safety, and Chanel feels very strongly that she would want to give birth to any future children in Berwick. They feel that the alternative maternity healthcare services now available to them are inadequate to meet both their current and future needs.”
Mr Peebles added: “Berwick is a small town and can be extremely isolated. Main roads such as the A1 and train lines around Berwick have been hit by flooding in recent years which has lead to the town being cut off at times during the winter.
“Traffic speeds on the nearby A1 can also be slow because of farm vehicles and overtaking slow moving tractors can be very difficult at times.
“The alternative hospitals are around 40 and 50 miles away leaving families with a long round trip for their pregnancies.”
He added that the temporary closure of the maternity unit was made “all the more worrying” by the trust’s decision to withdraw midwife cover to support mothers who wish to have a home birth, and said that the withdrawal of inpatient post-natal services at Berwick had been done without the provision of adequate replacement services.
As well as breaching duties set out in the NHS Act 2006, lawyers for the two women will also argue that the NHS trust may be in breach of the Equality Act 2010, which outlines that public bodies need to have “due regard” to the welfare of any disabled people who may need the maternity services when making decisions.
Chanel Ryan said: “Giving birth is a very scary thought and experience for anyone, but now we have the added stress of knowing that we face a long journey to another hospital whatever the circumstances, which is especially worrying if there are any emergencies.
“There is also now a very limited post-natal care service available for new mothers so it’s going to be hard for people to get help with things like breast feeding and bathing.
“I wasn’t asked what I thought of the closure and it seems no-one who would be affected was asked either. It’s appalling. Everyone I know who is pregnant just wants to give birth in Berwick so they feel looked after.”
In its letter, Irwin Mitchell has demanded that Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust re-opens the Berwick Maternity Unit for new birth deliveries and reinstates the previous package of ante and post natal healthcare services.
They have also asked for confirmation that the trust will carry out a full consultation in compliance with the NHS Act 2006 and undertake a full equality assessment before making any further decisions to close the maternity unit.
A spokeswoman for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said: “We temporarily suspended births and postnatal inpatient care in Berwick on 1 August 2012 because of serious safety concerns. These concerns highlighted the lack of opportunity for our midwives to regularly practise and apply their skills due to the low numbers of births taking place at the unit, only 13 from April 2011 to March 2012.
“We cannot take risks where patient safety is concerned and made this temporary decision in order to protect both our midwives and the mothers and babies in our care. Everyone has a right to expect safe care within their NHS and it is our duty to ensure we are providing this at all times in all of our hospitals, including Berwick. We are now completing a detailed safety review which will be considered by the Trust Board in the coming weeks. Should any long term future changes be necessary, this would of course be subject to full, formal public consultation led by our commissioners NHS North of Tyne.
“Since the temporary suspension of some services, the maternity unit at Berwick has remained open seven days a week for all antenatal, postnatal and consultant-led high risk clinics with full support from community midwifery services. We have also taken appropriate steps to ensure our midwives have had the opportunity to practise on a rotation basis at one of our busier maternity units at Wansbeck General Hospital.”