The warning signs

By Stuart Bonar, Public Affairs Advisor Midwives NHS

We need more midwives. That has been one of the most important messages the RCM has sought to get across to politicians for years. Indeed, it is one of the asks we have in the blueprint for better maternity services in Northern Ireland that we are soon to launch ahead of the Assembly elections there on 5 May.

That campaigning has worked. Over the years, we have secured repeated commitments from politicians and parties to improve midwife numbers. People may be sceptical and cynical about those promises, but midwife numbers are up. Since the 2010 General Election, for example, the NHS in England has added the equivalent of over 2,700 full-time midwives.

However the pace of that rise is simply not good enough. In the runup to the 2010 election, David Cameron actually committed to increasing numbers by 3,000. It’s now 12 years on and six years since Cameron left 10 Downing Street, and still the Conservatives have not delivered in full. A lot done? Perhaps. A lot still to do? Absolutely.

Right now we are seeing something new that concerns us a great deal. Since last summer, for the first time since monthly NHS workforce records started being published in 2009, we are seeing year-on-year falls in the number of NHS midwives in England. This started in July 2021’s figures, and has been repeated every month since. More than that, the latest numbers are the worst yet.

In December 2021, there were the equivalent of 22,192 full-time NHS midwives in England. This was 337 fewer than in December 2020. In other words, the bump that comes from an entire year’s cohort of newly-qualified midwives emerging from our universities was more than counteracted by all the midwives who retired or otherwise left the NHS.

We need more midwives. The workforce should be growing, not shrinking. To do this, we need better NHS pay, better working conditions for NHS staff – keeping some of the things from the earlier stages of the pandemic that helped staff cope and feel valued, and a whole range of measures to retain the staff we have and attract and keep new staff too.

We achieve that by continuing to make the case, it's what the RCM has always done and will always do.