Midwife numbers falling fastest in North of England

By RCM Public Affairs Advisor Stuart Bonar NHS MSWs - Maternity Support Workers Safety Maternity Safety Pay

The number of midwives in England's NHS is dropping, and at a quickening pace. This worrying new trend started in the summer of 2021, before which we had never before seen year-on-year falls in midwife numbers. But the drop is not happening equally across the country. It is in the North of England that we are seeing by far the biggest falls.

In May 2022, there were 569 fewer midwives in England's NHS than a year earlier, a sizeable fall. More than half that drop however came in the North, with 100 fewer midwives in the North West and 200 fewer midwives in the North East and Yorkshire region.

We also saw drops in London (down 94 midwives), the Midlands (down 77), the South East (down 59) and the South West (down 55), and a small rise of 18 midwives in the East of England. But only in the North did we see triple-digit falls in midwife numbers.

The drops in percentage terms were biggest in northern England too. The North West's midwifery workforce fell by 2.7% in the 12 months to May 2022, and in the North East and Yorkshire the drop was 4.8%.

Meantime, the latest birth numbers from the Office for National Statistics, released in August, showed more babies being born in every region of England outside of the capital. So, we are seeing more babies but fewer midwives – with the biggest drops in the North.

It was in April last year when, after a deep dive assessment of the midwifery workforce by the NHS, the minister responsible wrote to the Health and Social Care Committee to state that the health service in England was short of the equivalent of almost 2,000 full-time midwives. The falls outlined here have happened in the year since then, so are additional to that shortage.

As set out above, midwife numbers are falling almost everywhere. Nationally, the rate at which the midwifery workforce is shrinking is speeding up. Birth numbers are rising too, up almost 11,000 in the latest annual statistics. We need action, and we need it quickly, and we need particular attention paid to turning the situation around in the North of England, which is suffering more than the rest of the country.

A big part of the solution is pay. Midwives and other NHS staff have seen the value of their pay whittled away massively following year after relentless year of pay freezes and below-inflation pay uplifts. That needs to be rectified, with a decent pay rise for NHS staff. That will help staunch the flow of midwives out of the profession.

But the problems go deeper and the solutions required need to be more ambitious, vital and fundamental though a decent pay rise is. We need to see funded commitments to increase training places, clinical placements for midwifery students, but also a stronger focus on looking after the wellbeing of NHS staff in post, broader workforce planning across maternity and, frankly, the entire NHS – with the very latest staffing numbers suggesting a staggering 132,000 vacant NHS posts nationwide.

We cannot wait any longer. Action to fix this is needed now.