Watchdog warns of maternity risks at scandal-hit hospital – despite minister’s claim wards are safe

Shaun Lintern
A criminal investigation has been launched into poor care at the East Ken University Hospitals Trust: Alamy

An NHS hospital at the centre of a maternity inquiry is still putting babies and mothers at risk, the care watchdog has warned – contradicting claims by a minister to the Commons that the unit was a safe place to give birth.

Bosses at East Kent Hospitals University Trust have been told by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to take action after it warned of safety risks following inspections at the end of January and earlier this month.

The dangers are striking similar to the failures during the birth of Harry Richford that led to the baby’s death seven days later. His family said they were “shocked and dismayed” to see the findings from the CQC.

On Thursday patient safety minister Nadine Dorries told MPs an independent inquiry would be held into poor maternity care at the trust after a series of avoidable deaths, but added: “I want to reiterate that the trust is a safe place for any woman who is pregnant or giving birth.”

However, in a letter sent to the trust chief executive, Susan Acott, on 7 February the CQC said it had identified “concerns presenting a risk to women” at both the William Harvey Hospital, in Ashford, and the Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital in Margate.

It said there were “instances where midwives were put in a position where they had to make decisions on the care and treatment of high risk women, that should be made by a doctor, at Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital”.

They also warned: “It is a risk known to the trust, that midwives may not be escalating in a timely way, to medical staff, when fetal distress has been identified, to make sure medical staff are present as necessary for when that woman gives birth.”

A report back in 2015 by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists warned some doctors were not attending wards when they were needed. This was a factor in the death of Harry Richford in 2017.

The CQC said junior nursing staff were also being given responsibility for wards “without sufficient senior support” at the William Harvey Hospital. It also said the risk assessments of women were not being done properly and while observations of women were being recorded they were not being used to spot women who might be deteriorating.

Inspectors said staff were still not routinely reporting incidents where issues impacted on care and the trust’s own audits of the service had failed to spot the problems.

An inquest in January found that Harry Richford’s death in 2017 had been “wholly avoidable”, with warnings of the issues five years ago. Harry’s grandfather Derek Richford told The Independent: “We were shocked and dismayed to see they found the very same risks we haven talking to the trust about for the past two and a half years have still not been mitigated. These are the very same risks the RCOG wrote about in 2015.

“How can we possibly have any trust in the hospital that it is now a safe place to have a baby?”

NHS England has asked Dr Bill Kirkup, who led a 2015 inquiry into maternity failings at the Morecambe Bay hospital, to lead the East Kent investigation. The CQC is considering a criminal prosecution of the trust over the death of Harry Richford.

Meanwhile, the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch has launched a national investigation into maternity delays when babies are in distress amid concerns it is leading to deaths and brain injuries across the NHS.

East Kent Hospitals University Trust has apologised for failing women and not making improvements in maternity services sooner.

At a board meeting of the trust on Thursday, managers said changes were now being made including better monitoring of women and babies and recruiting six new obstetric consultants and six new middle grade doctors.

A full inspection report by the CQC is expected to be published in coming weeks but the regulator did also highlight good care it had seen including safety huddles among staff to anticipate problems as well as new training for staff and specialist midwives being brought in.

The watchdog also praised the trust’s new approach to involving families in investigations of safety incidents.

The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.

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