• Home births and some midwife-led units affected
  • Charity urges trusts to reconsider offering home births
  • Closures echo those in first wave

Some trusts in London and the South East are closing standalone birth centres and warning they cannot support home births because of high levels of demand for ambulance services from covid patients.

Women in East Sussex who planned to give birth at Eastbourne District General Hospital and Crowborough Birth Centre have been told they need to go to other units. Both Eastbourne and Crowborough have standalone midwife-led units and women who have a difficult labour would need to be transferred by ambulance to another hospital.

Both East Sussex Healthcare Trust and Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Trust, which run the services, cited pressure on the ambulance services as the reason for the closures. The trusts, both of which are served by South East Coast Ambulance Service Foundation Trust, have also suspended support for home births.

Services are continuing at a similar birthing unit at Maidstone Hospital, with private ambulances transferring women to Tunbridge Wells Hospital if needed. However, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Trust has posted on Facebook to warn women the situation may change and it is monitoring ambulance response times to determine “the safety of our out of hospital birthing choices”.

Meanwhile, London’s ambulance service is asking hospital maternity teams and parents-to-be to reconsider their home birth plans. The trust has seen a significant rise in demand for ambulances due to covid and is prioritising the sickest patients.

“We have been working closely with London’s maternity teams to ensure that women choosing a home birth, or in one of London’s freestanding birth centres, are informed of the response they may receive if they need a non-urgent conveyance to hospital,” a London Ambulance Service Trust spokeswoman said.

Some trusts are continuing to support home births but others, including the Royal Free London FT and Kingston Hospital FT, have suspended home birth services. The Royal Free has also temporarily closed its freestanding Edgware Birth Centre, according to its website.

Home births services have also been suspended in other parts of Kent, Sussex and much of Surrey. Some trusts also cite staffing issues within their own units for the decision.

In the first wave of the pandemic, support for home births was suspended in many areas of the country and some midwife-led units closed. In some cases, it took several months for services to be restored to normal.

Maria Booker, programmes director at charity Birthrights, said: “We recognise the huge pressures that trusts are under at the moment but would urge trusts to do all they can to continue to offer home birth — we know many women and birthing people feel very strongly that this is the safest option for them, especially in the current pandemic.”

A study from 2011, published in the BMJ, found 45 per cent of women in their first pregnancy and 12 per cent of women on a subsequent pregnancy who had planned a home birth were transferred to hospital before or after delivery. Of those in a freestanding midwifery unit, 36 per cent of women in their first pregnancy and 9 per cent of those on a subsequent pregnancy were transferred.

South East Coast Ambulance Service FT did not respond to a request for comments.