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Maternity Ward Closures.

Almost half of the maternity wards in England responding to a Freedom of Information request closed their doors to expectant mothers at least once in 2016.

The Freedom of Information figures show that 42 out of 96 trusts shut maternity wards temporarily 382 times. The most common reasons given were too few staff and not enough beds.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said that sometimes it was right to close a unit and divert new admissions where the safety of mothers and babies in the hospital might be compromised but doing so regularly could reflect problems with the availability of expert staff.

The data shows that maternity units were closed 382 times, compared with 375 in 2015 and 225 in 2014. Some were shut overnight, while other closures lasted more than 24 hours.

Forty of England’s 136 hospital trusts did not respond to requests for information.

Those that did included Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust which closed its maternity unit 30 times in 2016, citing a midwives shortage; Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust which closed its unit five times, once for 14.5 hours to "maintain safety and staffing levels"; East Cheshire NHS Trust, which closed its maternity unit for eight hours, as all neo-natal unit cots were occupied, and Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust which closed its maternity unit 10 times, because of capacity, high activity and staffing.

RCM head of policy, Sean O'Sullivan, said the figures highlighted the pressures on maternity services in England, where there was a shortage of 3,500 full-time midwives.

He said: "If units are regularly having to close their doors, it suggests there is an underlying problem around capacity and staffing levels that needs immediate attention."

He also said it was upsetting and distressing for women to be diverted to other hospitals when they were in labour.

National Childbirth Trust senior policy adviser, Elizabeth Duff, said: "New maternity policy in England stresses the need for local services which must have enough midwives so that women are not turned away in labour."

A Department of Health spokesperson said there were now more than 2,000 additional midwives compared with May 2010 and 6,500 midwives being trained.

They added: "Temporary closures in NHS maternity units are well rehearsed safety measures which we expect trusts to use to safely manage peaks in admissions.”