During the Success Regime consultation on local Health Services earlier in 2017 I published a report highlighting the substantial risks which will be created if consultant-led maternity services in Whitehaven are closed and hundreds of women each year are required to travel an hour or more to Carlisle to give birth.
In May I was elected as a Liberal Democrat County Councillor and I joined the Health Scrutiny Committee – giving me the opportunity to cross-examine health bosses. I recently used this position to have it publicly confirmed that the Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) will still make the decision on whether or not to end consultant-led maternity care in Whitehaven without taking fully into account the risks that ending this service will create.
Consultant-led care will end if safe medical staffing in Whitehaven is not deliverable and sustainable. This is madness. Clearly there are risks associated with having fragile staffing in Whitehaven, but these are risks we have been living with for years already, and they are small compared with the risks arising when large numbers of women have to travel long distances to give birth. The newly established Independent Review Group has been requested to assess the risks associated with women having to travel to Carlisle or Barrow, but as I understand it there is then no route by which any comments they make can influence whether or not consultant-led care ends in Whitehaven.
In March the Health Scrutiny Committee referred the decision on maternity care to the Secretary of State for Health (Jeremy Hunt). We are now expecting Hunt’s decision any day. Before he took office in 2013, proposals to close maternity services where significant numbers of women would have to travel over 20 miles were refused by the Secretary of State on safety grounds. However, since 2013 all referrals on the closure of services have been rejected without the cases associated with them being heard.
Jeremy Hunt could act to ensure that there is a mechanism by which the closure of consultant-led maternity care in Whitehaven can be prevented if this is found by the Independent Review Group to be much more risky than keeping services open. If he fails to do this it is essential that our local action groups work quickly to challenge his decision in the courts and I would strongly encourage everyone to support and encourage them.
At the Working Together Group last Thursday it was suggested that the CCG could intervene to establish that the decision about whether or not to close consultant-led care will be made on the basis of which option presents the least risk to mothers. If Jeremy Hunt refuses to address this issue it is essential that the CCG does so rapidly and publicly if they want to demonstrate that they are serious about acting in the public interest. They could, in doing so, prevent a high-profile legal battle which will further damage public trust.