Midwife numbers drop in latest NHS report

By Stuart Bonar, Public Affairs Advisor on 10 August 2021 Maternity Services Government

New midwifery workforce figures from the NHS have given us here at the RCM cause for concern.

Published by NHS Digital on 29 July, they reveal that the number of NHS midwives working in England in May had fallen by almost 300 in just two months. This is the fastest fall for these two months for any of the years listed in the NHS report, which goes back to 2009.

There is a theory as to why this might be happening, and if correct it should worry the Government as well as NHS bosses. The theory goes like this: last year, with the country in the grip of the pandemic, NHS staff who had been thinking about retiring or moving on to a job outside the health service, instead stayed put. Not wanting to leave their colleagues in the midst of the greatest challenge in NHS history, they decided to postpone their departure.

This is backed up by the workforce numbers. Each year the number of midwives peaks in November as newly qualified midwives enter the service, then during the rest of the year the number drifts downwards as people leave, before a new wave of newly qualified midwives enters the service once again in the autumn. It is a constant pattern.

Last year, 2020, was different. In every other year featured in the report, for example, the drop in the number of midwives in the six months after the November peak easily exceeded 500. In some years, it has been much higher. The drop in the six months after November 2017, for example, was 751.

Last year however the drop was a lot more muted, at under 300, much lower than normal. But these latest figures show that bigger falls have returned, with the NHS workforce in England now down 500 midwives since November last year.

Lots of factors will have contributed to this. If the theory is right then some midwives who had delayed their departure have now decided to go ahead with it. Pay will also have been a big factor for many, with the Government dragging its feet for months before eventually botching the recent pay announcement.

We will need to keep our eyes on this, and we will be urging politicians to do that too. After a health minister admitted in a letter to Parliament in April that the NHS in England is short of 2,000 midwives, none of us can afford for numbers to fall.

On the issue of the midwifery shortage, it is worth noting – as we look at the workforce numbers – that it has been 11 years since then Conservative leader David Cameron promised as the 2010 general election approached to boost midwife numbers by 3,000. The following year, in 2011, Channel 4 News revealed how the election pledge had already been abandoned. Now, a further 10 years on, the Conservatives are still to boost midwife numbers by this much, after more than a decade in power.