Parents of babies who have died or been harmed as a result of poor care are demanding that ministers order a public inquiry into repeated failings in NHS maternity units.
They want Steve Barclay, the health secretary, to set up a judge-led statutory inquiry to investigate recurring problems in maternity services, which cost the NHS in England £2.6bn a year in damages.
Babies are still being damaged and dying, despite previous inquiries into maternity scandals at the Morecambe Bay, Shrewsbury and Telford, and East Kent NHS trusts recommending changes. The NHS’s failure to improve maternity safety is so alarming that a public inquiry is needed to finally ensure that women and babies no longer come to harm, the families say.
The Maternity Safety Alliance, a group of relatives of newborns who have died due to lapses in NHS childbirth, warned that scandals will continue unless such an inquiry is held.
“Our babies are too precious to keep on ignoring the reality that despite a raft of national initiatives and policies implemented in the wake of investigations and reports, systemic issues continue to adversely impact on the care of women and babies.
“Far too much avoidable harm continues to devastate lives in circumstances that could and should be avoided. Fundamental reform is needed,” they said in a letter urging Barclay to intervene.
The letter’s signatories include Emily Barley, whose daughter Beatrice died at Barnsley hospital last year after staff mistakenly monitored her mother’s heart rate rather than hers.
It has also been signed by Jack and Sarah Hawkins, who have played a key role in highlighting serious weaknesses in maternity care at Nottingham university hospitals NHS trust since their daughter Harriet died there.
The families are “horrified” that, despite countless initiatives, “mums and babies are still suffering and dying due to the same failures in care that we experienced”.
They said: “Over and over again we hear that ‘lessons will be learned’ – and yet those same failings continue.
“And they don’t just continue in isolated corners of the NHS; they are present to some degree in almost every NHS trust in England, with the most serious kind of avoidable harm occuring everywhere,” the letter says.
It adds that “barriers to ensuring that every mother and every baby receives safe care have so far proved insurmountable, with problems in culture, leadership, inequality, service structures, education and training, accountability and governance seemingly intractable”.
Paul Whiteing, the chief executive of patient safety charity Action against Medical Accidents, backed the families’ plea for an inquiry that would probe every aspect of maternity care across England.
Citing the £2.6bn in compensation that the NHS pays out annually for failings in maternity care, he added: “Behind that vast sum of money are countless tragic cases of injured babies that will need care for the rest of their lives.
“Something is broken when the NHS is paying out so much in compensation for just one area of medicine, and an inquiry to look into why is now overdue.”
Two weeks ago the Care Quality Commission (CQC) warned that almost two-thirds of maternity units in England were unsafe and that maternity care was getting worse, not better.
Barclay did not indicate if he would honour the group’s request.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Every parent deserves to feel confident in the care they and their baby receive and we welcome the CQCs commitment to monitoring those trusts that are not providing an adequate standard, to ensure improvements are made.
“Nationally, we have invested £165m a year since 2021 to grow the maternity workforce and improve neonatal services and we are promoting careers in midwifery by increasing training places by up to 3,650 over the past four years.”
An inquiry into maternity care at the Nottingham trust is under way and families who had a child at the Leicester acute hospital trust are demanding an inquiry into alleged lapses in care there also.