An “unprecedented” shortage of maternity beds in London meant women in labour had to be transferred to hospitals up to 10 miles away to give birth.
Four of the capital’s busiest maternity departments had to impose emergency closures – with one unable to take any new cases for 45 hours throughout a chaotic weekend.
Sources said the situation sent alarm bells ringing at NHS England’s London region as it came as health chiefs were in the process of axing a unit that handles 2,400 births a year.
The temporary diversions were imposed over the weekend of May 16/17 at St George’s, in Tooting, the Royal London, in Whitechapel, and Newham and Chelsea and Westminster hospitals.
Two of the three women turned away from Chelsea and Westminster had to be transferred to Ealing hospital – which four days later was told it would lose its maternity services from July 1.
St George’s, a specialist centre for complicated pregnancies, was the worst affected, with eight women having to be diverted, with some believed to have been sent to Croydon hospital.
A St George’s spokeswoman said: ”Our maternity was placed on divert for approximately 45 hours over the weekend of May 16/17. The unit was fully staffed but faced an unprecedented increase in admission demand.
“Decisions like this are always difficult to make, as we do not want to cause concerns for women who have chosen to birth their babies at St George’s, but then find this is not possible. However, safety and quality of care must always be paramount.”
Women arriving at the Royal London were assessed and diverted to the Homerton, in Hackney, while those at Newham were sent 10 miles away to Queen’s hospital in Romford.
A spokesman for Barts Health NHS Trust, which runs the Royal London and Newham, said a “small number” of women were diverted due to “high patient numbers”. Diverts were in place last weekend [23/24] at another of its hospitals, Whipps Cross.
He said: “As the maternity service is continually responding to high levels of patient activity, it is not unusual to implement a temporary divert.”
A Chelsea and Westminster hospital spokesman said it closed “for a few hours” on the Saturday afternoon.
He said: “The reason was an unusual spike in the numbers of women who came in to give birth – a significant proportion of whom with quite complex medical conditions.
“On Friday, Saturday and Sunday we had a total of 61 deliveries (when the average number for three days would be nearer 40). This is a rare event and we apologise to the women we had to send elsewhere.”
The Care Quality Commission watchdog last Friday declared both the Royal London and Newham to be “inadequate” and warned they needed more obstetric consultants and midwives.
The Royal London, which handles 4,350 births a year, knew of a “risk” in its maternity capacity nine months ago. However, a new midwife-led unit was delayed, women awaiting discharge were often two to a room – despite the potential infection risks – and some waiting to be induced were often sent to another hospital.
At Newham, which handles 6,800 births a year, consultants were present just 74 hours a week – well short of the 168-hour target, the CQC found.
NHS England (London) said “disruption” to women in labour would reduce as hospitals began to meet new standards increasing the number of midwives and obstetricians.
A spokeswoman said: “Across the capital, maternity units work together as part of a network to ensure a safe number of midwives can provide good care to expectant mothers.
“The nature of childbirth means we have days when some units become exceptionally busy, so London’s maternity units may need to divert women to neighbouring organisations. The number of women who do not deliver at the unit they are booked into is extremely small.”
A spokeswoman for Shaping a Healthier Future, the programme behind the Ealing closure, said: “The changes in north west London… will improve care for women by investing in new maternity beds, midwifery led units, more consultant obstetrician hours on labour ward and more midwives, so we are confident that fewer women will have to go to an unfamiliar unit in the future.”