Causeway maternity campaigners urge top civil servant to 'engage at all levels'

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Causeway campaigners have called upon the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health, Peter May, to “acknowledge the full body of evidence, to truly engage with stakeholders at every level” and to consider potential risk to life if the hospital’s maternity department is closed.

In a statement to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Causeway Maternity Campaign has highlighted concerns of staff and members of the public in response to a recommendation by the Northern Health and Social Care Trust board that all hospital births in the Northern Trust area should take place at Antrim Hospital.

The Trust has advised the current provision at Causeway Hospital in Coleraine is”unsustainable because of falling birth rates, workforce challenges and the absence of neonatal special care baby unit facilities at the hospital”.

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Board members were told of falling birth rates in the Causeway area and that “higher risk” deliveries already take place at a different hospital. There were 862 births at Causeway Hospital last year.

Causeway Hospital, ColeraineCauseway Hospital, Coleraine
Causeway Hospital, Coleraine

“Given the extreme fragility of maternity services in the Northern Trust, the midwifery-led unit option has therefore been discounted at the present time and will be kept under review pending the outcome of this DoH led review,” the Trust has said.

“It has therefore been concluded that the only viable option at this point is the transfer of all births to Antrim Hospital.”

The Department of Health has appointed Professor Mary Renfrew to take forward a new report looking at midwifery services in Northern Ireland.

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Professor Renfrew will undertake work that will help inform a “consistent approach” to the provision of midwifery services throughout Northern Ireland, including a comprehensive and independent review of free-standing midwifery led units.

Recent Consultation

A free-standing midwifery-led unit at Causeway Hospital was one of the options presented in the recent consultation on the future of maternity services in the area. However, Causeway Maternity Campaign has called for “increased investment in order to up-skill and recruit”.

Commenting on a Royal College of Midwives ‘State of Maternity Services 2023’ report published earlier this week, the group said: “A report delivered earlier this week red flagged the increasing challenges maternity services are facing to ensure safety and efficiency in the face of a tightening budget.

“The report also said ‘demand for maternity services cannot be managed through waiting lists, so it is vitally important to base workforce planning on evidence rather than assumptions’.”

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The report also states that in Northern Ireland, “maternity services face peaks in demand that cannot necessarily be predicted or planned for, and whichneed to be staffed and resourced accordingly”.

Causeway Maternity Campaign says: “Yet the reasons for the proposed closure of Causeway maternity have been cited as due to ‘lack of recruitment’ and statistics predicting birth rates will drop – assumptions.”

The campaigners have suggested potential for Causeway maternity to “share the work pressures and increasing challenges facing maternity services in both Antrim Area Hospital and Altnagelvin Hospital” in Londonderry.

“We therefore call upon the Permanent Secretary of Health and his counterparts to further consider the current proposal and in light of all evidence including this week’s report, to scrap plans for closure and allow Causeway Maternity to do their jobs.

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High Importance

“It is also of high importance this week that the Permanent Secretary of Education refused to make such devastating cuts as they represented ‘a major change to long-standing ministerial programmes and policies’ explaining that he was of the view such decisions should be taken by a minister, not a Permanent Secretary. Such commonsense and compassion should surely extend also into the Department of Health.”

The Northern Trust’s chief executive Jennifer Welsh told board members at last week’s Trust board meeting the Trust is awaiting a decision from the Department of Health.

Causeway Maternity Campaign has claimed a number of requests by members of the campaign group to attend a public meeting of the Trust Board last week were denied and were told that the future of maternity services was not part of the agenda.

A spokesperson for the Northern Health and Social Care Trust commented: “Members of the public were able to attend the Northern Trust Board meeting on 25 May 2023, as they are with all Trust Board meetings, and virtual attendance was available.

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“A number of members of the public had requested speaking rights at the meeting to discuss the Transformation of Acute Maternity Services. This issue was not on the meeting’s agenda as the recommendation of the Board in relation to maternity services in the Northern Trust is currently being considered by the Department of Health. A further update will be brought to the Trust Board in due course.

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“In keeping with Standing Orders, the Trust did not grant speaking rights for the meeting on 25 May 2023, however we did offer to take any specific questions or queries via email.”

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter