'Staff are tired and stretched': £50m hospital bill for maternity errors

A March with Midwives vigil taking place outside The Forum in Norwich. Picture: Danielle Booden

A March with Midwives vigil taking place outside The Forum in Norwich in November 2021. Picture: Danielle Booden - Credit: Danielle Booden

Norfolk hospitals paid out a record £16m last year for maternity errors – sparking concerns about the pressure midwives are being placed under. 

In the last five years £50m has been spent on damages and legal costs for maternity mistakes in the county, plus another £80m in Suffolk. 

The figures have led to concerns that maternity staff are being asked to do too much - and this is leading to serious errors.

Overall, the number of successful negligence claims to NHS trusts in our region has remained steady at around 120 every year. 

However, the sum paid out for all claims soared last year to £30m in Norfolk – more than half of which was for maternity errors.

Maternity claims are often high as damage done to a child at birth means potentially a lifetime of therapy and one big payment can skew the figures. The figures also relate to mistakes which happened several years ago as it takes a long time for settlements to be reached. 

But it comes at a time of growing concerns about pressures on midwives. 

A nationwide protest called March With Midwives was held in November last year to highlight problems in the service. 

Paula Cleary, organiser of the March for Midwives vigils

Paula Cleary, organiser of the March for Midwives vigils - Credit: Paula Cleary

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Organiser Paula Cleary, a doula from March, said : "It doesn't take a genius to work out why these accidents happen. Staff are so tired and so stretched. They also live in fear of being blamed if something goes wrong. 

"Covid has exaggerated something that was already happening. Midwives were feeling devalued and the number of staff on shifts is often dangerously low."

The largest pay-outs were at the region’s biggest hospital – the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) - with £9.5m paid in maternity claims alone. 

A hospital spokesman stressed that these claims would take many years to resolve.

However, Guy Forster, partner at Irwin Mitchell solicitors, said he saw the same mistakes happening again and again in maternity units. 

They included a failure to recognise the baby was not growing properly during pregnancy and issues feeding the baby in post-natal wards. 

"We have a couple of clients whose babies blood sugar levels dropped so low they became hypoglycaemic," he said.

“When harm occurs, we need to learn from it, but often trusts do their own investigations and as a matter of human nature it is very difficult to analyse your own performance.” 

Guy Forster, medical negligence solicitor at Irwin Mitchell 

Guy Forster, medical negligence solicitor at Irwin Mitchell - Credit: Irwin Mitchell 

He added it would be “really dangerous" to dismiss these figures as historic. 

“These are catastrophic injuries and children can suffer their whole lives," he said.

Midwives and families gather outside Ipswich Town Hall to ports to against conditions for midwives.

Nationwide protests called March With Midwives were held in November last year to highlight the pressures staff were under - Credit: Archant

Papers which went before the NNUH's board in November referred to "staffing challenges" in maternity but said they had recruited 38 new midwives. 

An NNUH spokesman added: “Our Trust is thoroughly committed to investigating and learning from all incidents and to put actions in place to improve the care and experience for our patients." 

They said that the number of new claims received last year was the lowest for five years. There were only seven new negligence claims from around 6,000 births.

However, the figures paid out are so large that they could fund the starting salaries of 627 newly-qualified midwives in Norfolk.

They money is paid out by litigation authority NHS Resolution, rather than the hospitals.