"Today’s announcement by the Health Secretary offers welcome recognition of the work that midwives do - but there is much further to go."
Published 27th March 2018
By Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, NHS midwife and co-chair of the Women's Equality Party Health Committee
Jeremy Hunt’s plan to train 3,000 new midwives is a welcome initiative, but there is an immediate crisis in the sector that cannot wait for the many years it will take this strategy to have a material impact.
There is a midwife shortage of around 3,000 already, and many are leaving the profession now, citing workload, working conditions, or unhappiness with the quality of care they are able to provide – all factors that are at least partially the result of pressures on the workforce. This has negative repercussions on the finances of the NHS, since hospital trusts have to use expensive agency and bank staff to bridge the gap, and on the care midwives are able to provide for the women they look after. Add to that the age profile of midwives, with a third coming up to retirement age, and the reality is that an extra 3,000 midwives are needed straightaway, in addition to the increase in training places.
There are also questions about whether, after years of underinvestment, the system is geared to training up the new midwives. It involves a collaboration between hospital trusts, which need to make training and mentor spaces available, and universities who need to increase staffing levels and support for students. Crucially, we need to know whether trusts will get extra resources to employ the new midwives when they are qualified.
WE strongly support the idea of women knowing the midwives who look after them – to aid their physical, and psycho-social health – from pregnancy through to birth and into the postnatal period. Hunt’s commitments on continuity of carers are vindicated by the research, which indicates increases in spontaneous vaginal birth, and reductions in preterm birth and pregnancy loss before 24 weeks. Again, WE need to see commitment to restructure maternity services around community, case-loading midwifery care and away from hospital-based care so that all women can take advantage of continuity of carer.
The pay rise to be announced by Hunt today is overdue after years of wage increases being capped. WE salute the work of the Royal College of Midwives and 13 other health unions who negotiated the increase in the face of continued austerity – though once inflation has been taken into account many midwives will not see a significant real-terms increase.
Midwives are driven by a passion for the job rather than traditional market forces. But this commitment should not be exploited or taken for granted. That is why reinstating bursaries for student midwives – and student nurses – is a priority for the Women’s Equality Party, so that we can recruit the numbers planned by Hunt after a 23% fall in applications since the bursaries were scrapped. Healthcare students undertake demanding full-time study, leaving no room for part-time work. They spend 50% of their time working alongside mentors in the NHS and caring for women –care which they are now paying to provide rather than being supported to do so.
In conclusion, today’s announcement by the Health Secretary offers welcome recognition of the work that midwives do. There is a long way to go, however, before these warm words are translated into action that will affect the reality of providing high-quality midwifery care for all women in the UK.