Other than home births, no babies can currently be born in Kirklees after the indefinite closure of hospital-based birth units at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and Dewsbury & District Hospital.

The Huddersfield Birth Centre was “temporarily suspended” at the start of the pandemic in early 2020 and hasn’t re-opened since.

And the Bronte Birth Centre at Dewsbury hospital shut its doors in May this year due to staff shortages, sickness – and staff maternity leave.

Managers at Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust (CHFT), which runs HRI, and the Mid-Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust (MYHT), which runs Dewsbury, blame a national midwifery recruitment crisis for the on-going closures.

Mums-to-be who can’t have, or don’t want, a home birth have to travel to Calderdale Royal Hospital in Halifax or Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield.

The two Trusts cannot say when the two birth centres will be able to re-open due to ongoing staff shortages, predicted to last into 2023-24.

The Trusts are working together to re-open one birthing centre in Kirklees – but have not said whether that will be Huddersfield or Dewsbury.

Jean and Gordon Leadbeater, parents of the late MP Jo Cox, and their daughter Kim, now MP for Batley & Spen, open the £1.3m Bronte Birth Centre at Dewsbury in 2016. Pic by: MIKE CLARK

The crisis in maternity staffing levels and recruitment was revealed at a meeting of Kirklees Council’s Health and Adult Social Care Scrutiny Panel.

Simon Riley-Fuller, associate director of nursing at CHFT, said there was a national shortage of midwives and retention and recruitment was a problem and it was an ongoing challenge to maintain safe staffing levels.

Anne-Marie Henshaw, director of midwifery and women’s health at MYHT, told the panel there were “vacancy gaps” which had been exacerbated by “higher levels of sickness than we have experienced previously” and levels of longer-term sick leave.

That, combined with midwives also going on maternity leave, had led to the “temporary suspension” at Dewsbury.

Ms Henshaw stressed the closures weren’t intended to be permanent but she could give no timescales for when the centres might re-open.

She added: “There’s no corporate or strategic intent to not open these birth centres when workforcing improves.”

There was no question of the birth centres being unsafe and Ms Henshaw said: “This is not a conversation about whether our birth centres are safe, it’s about how we resource them and how we resource them into the future.”

On sickness levels, Mr Riley-Fuller said: “Sickness is a huge factor, not just within midwifery but generally across the nursing workforce.

“There will always be sickness for different reasons but the pandemic has played a massive part in that. Yes, people are burned out and tired and again it’s not exclusive to maternity. It’s a thing we are seeing generally. Nationally we are seeing that.

“A significant proportion (of sickness) has been in relation to Covid but also how people are feeling now as we come out of the pandemic. Morale has been a factor. We asked people to work very differently at pace at the start of the pandemic.”

On retirements, Mr Riley-Fuller said: “In the exit interviews we have done, very few people are leaving because they are unhappy with the service we manage. We have had quite a high turnover of retirees.

“A lot of colleagues have just got to the point where they just can’t do it anymore, don’t want to do it anymore because of what has happened.”

Since the pandemic there were fewer student midwives being trained and numbers wouldn’t return to the levels needed until 2024. Both trusts were now looking at international staff.

On recruiting overseas, Mr Riley-Fuller added: “Hot off the press, we have committed to five international recruitments with NHS England.”

And the Mid-Yorkshire Trust revealed it was just about to increase the number of international midwives to 25.

The panel was told there were 238 births at Huddersfield Birth Centre in 2019 and 149 at Dewsbury in 2021.

Scrutiny chairman Clr Liz Smaje (Con, Birstall) said it was a “concern that we don’t have either birth centre operating” and described what was happening as a “change in service provision.”

Mr Riley-Fuller explained: “The Huddersfield Birth Centre was suspended in response to the pandemic so the space could be used to provide Covid capacity. That was the beginning of 2020.

“During and as we emerged from the pandemic the sickness and vacancies have prevented (the centre) from being able to safely reopen.”

Ms Henshaw said: “Both Trusts have made a strategic intent that we will have a midwife-led birth centre in Kirklees. We have established a birth centre advisory group. That provides a firm governance and leadership structure that’s direct to CEO level.

“The first thing we do have to do is recruit the staff. We have just had our third unsuccessful recruitment campaign for midwives to work in a free-standing birth centre. We have gone back to our recruitment team to get more advice and guidance.

“Recruitment will really drive the timeline. As we have found out from our risk assessments we have robust policies and procedures, we have robust governance and robust education, training and leadership but the most important thing is to be able to recruit into those roles.

“We have had conversations and we have started to open dialogue about what should a combined recruitment campaign look like. We are at the very early stages of those conversations.

“I am not able to say today we have a timeframe that says in six months we’ll be fully open with a birth centre in Kirklees that’s fully staffed because at the moment we can’t identify those staff.”

Panel chairman Clr Jackie Ramsay (Lab, Dewsbury South) said: “It’s hugely disappointing to feel that unless you can have a baby at home you can’t have a baby in Kirklees.

“We were expecting to see some more robust plans about when a birth centre could be reopened in Kirklees, if it’s not both.

“I think we were expecting to see some kind of timeline. Whether it’s a different model you are running using community staff or a joining of workforce.

“For Kirklees residents it’s not a good thing and I don’t think the public are fully aware that you can’t have a baby in Kirklees unless you are having it at home. We want to understand a timeline sooner rather than later on that.”