Midwives in Greater Manchester have been sharing concerning stories about a crisis in maternity services across the NHS with unsafe staffing levels and women and babies not being able to receive the care they deserve.
ManchesterWorld has heard how demoralised and overworked midwives say they can no longer take any pride in the job they are doing, while others have left the health service altogether. They say staffing levels are dangerously low in parts of the service and the level of care which can be given is affected, while the sector is also dealing with an exodus of midwives. It comes after a March with Midwives protest was held in Manchester city centre, part of a wave of demonstrations taking place across the country to highlight problems with maternity services and demand Government action.
The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) is currently balloting its members for strike action after the Government’s latest pay offer was rejected.
‘I resigned from the NHS - maternity is in crisis’
Abigail Latif had been working in the NHS for 14 years and had spent a decade as a midwife when she resigned in September. A job she had wanted as part of a scheme to ensure more women saw the same midwife all the way through the process of pregnancy and birth fell through and she was unable to return to the post she wanted.
She has been part of March with Midwives in support of its efforts to demand reform since its beginning a couple of years ago.
“Maternity is in crisis,” Abigail, who is from Prestwich, said. “You go to work and you just don’t know what you are stepping into. You don’t know what the staffing levels are going to be like, the service is not fully staffed on a daily basis.
“Some days are safer than others, it depends which area you are in. Staff are taken from other areas to ensure high-risk areas like the labour wards are covered. They are constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul by moving midwives around.
“Pregnant women know there is a shortage of midwives and know that when they go in there could be huge delays. The system is completely disjointed and broken now. It needs a restructure. Maternity death rates are increasing and it is shocking that we are in a developed country and having to deal with that.
“I was speaking to my mum and she said that in the ‘60s and’70s the NHS was this amazing force of healthcare and we were proud that we had that kind of service in our country. I really don’t feel proud any more to work for the NHS.
“The really sad thing is that us midwives go into this job because we really care and want to do a good job. Many of my colleagues and I have left the NHS and it’s not going to stop until we get better conditions. You don’t want to go to work where you feel you are doing a bad job and putting patients at risk.”
‘A day with no serious incidents is as good as it gets’
Tori Johnson has seen maternity services both as an employee and a patient. She worked as a midwife for eight years in London and fell pregnant soon after moving to Greater Manchester, which meant she saw the system from the point of view of a mum-to-be.
She gave shocking accounts of working conditions in maternity services, saying some midwifes got so dehydrated and overworked that they continued with their shifts while they were ill.
Tori, who lives in Bury, said: “I regularly went through shifts without a break, without time to eat or drink or use the bathroom. There were times I felt unsafe to be working. I would work from 9 to 5 and then go home for three and a half hours and then be called out for a night shift. The on-call system means you could work 21 hours out of 24.
“There were days when I worked on a ward and went home with absolutely no job satisfaction. A day with no serious incidents was as good as it was going to get. There was no feeling I had done a good job or was proud of what I had achieved.
“I’ve known midwives to feel the symptoms of an urine infection while they are working because they haven’t been able to drink or go to the toilet enough, test their own urine, get their medical colleagues to prescribe them antibiotics, go and get them from the drug store and stay on shift. That’s a human rights issue, we’re beyond employment issues here.
“When I was pregnant in Greater Manchester, I didn’t have many options on where to birth. Birth centres have shut down, home birth services have been suspended. I can’t imagine how new mums and women without my experience feel, they are just completely alone.
“The main thing we’re calling for is better, safer staffing levels to protect the women and babies we are looking after. In hospital you might have one midwife per six patients but often it’s double that. And in reality if you’ve got 12 pregnant women you’ve got 24 patients because you’re looking after the babies as well. You might have babies on observation or medication and you’re helping women breastfeed.
“This is a career that I feel is a calling. Being a midwife is my heart and soul, I adore it. However, I feel sick thinking about returning from maternity leave. Every single day is an accident waiting to happen.”
Tori also called for the bursaries for student midwives to be brought back, saying the current grant system leaves those coming into the profession saddled with large amounts of debt.
What has the Government said?
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We value the hard work of midwives and are committed to supporting them, including by investing £127 million to NHS maternity services to boost the workforce and improve neonatal care.
“This is on top of £95 million invested into establishing 1,200 new midwife roles and 100 consultant obstetricians, ensuring we have the staff in place to deliver high-quality, safe care, with £26.5m targeted at improving multi-disciplinary training.
“We gave over one million NHS workers a pay rise of at least £1,400 this year, on top of a 3% pay increase last year, increasing pay by £1,000 on average despite a public sector pay freeze.”
However, March with Midwives has pointed out that the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee has previously recommended that the budget for maternity services should be increased by between £200m and £350m each year, which means the Government’s current investment falls short of what has been suggested.
The RCM has also said that in the cost of living crisis members are struggling with soaring energy bills and a below-inflation pay rise was “the final straw” for midwives who it said felt “undervalued”. It is encouraging its members to support strike action in the current ballot, which started on 11 November to run for four weeks.