WORKFORCE: The troubled Furness General Hospital’s consultant-led maternity services are to be temporarily moved to a neighbouring county in a bid to avert potentially dangerous levels of understaffing.

University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust, which runs the Cumbrian hospital, said sickness absences in Furness’s maternity service and special care baby unit were approaching “levels where we would have further concern about the future safety of the service”.

From 5 February, its consultant-led maternity services and its SCBU will be temporarily transferred to the trust’s Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

Furness’s maternity unit was the flashpoint for a care scandal that engulfed Morecambe Bay in 2011, and is the focus of an on-going police investigation into infant deaths.

UHMB interim chair Sir David Henshaw said today: “Over the past eight weeks, we have been filling shifts with the goodwill of existing and agency staff but the situation has now risen to a level where this is not enough to ensure safe staffing levels.

“We have also encountered a marked increase in maternity sickness levels since the escalation of the on-going police investigation.”

HSJ understands that in the past month police have begun interviewing some staff under caution.

Sir David said that UHMB was aiming to return the services to Furness as soon as safe and sustainable staffing levels could be achieved. A midwifery-led maternity service will be maintained at the hospital. However, Sir David said it would be “wrong of me to guarantee the exact timings as there are many factors outside of our control”.

UHMB chief executive Jackie Daniel added: “We announced in November that clinicians had raised concerns regarding the ability to safely staff the SCBU at FGH and the action we were taking to mitigate against this risk, however this has now been overtaken by the significant, unsustainable levels of sickness absence.

“We will continue to work hard, together with the wider NHS to recruit more midwives and neonatal nurses. We have also liaised with other specialist and regional providers to second staff, but this has not yet proved successful.”