A CALL has gone out to women in the Okehampton area to share their experiences of maternity services, hot on the heels of news that the birthing centre at Okehampton Hospital is to remain closed until at least September.

NHS bosses said the Devon-wide survey of women’s experiences of maternity services was unrelated to the continued closure of the birthing centre at Okehampton Hospital.

Campaigners, though, are urging women in the Okehampton area to seize this opportunity to make their feelings known about how the closure has affected them.

The survey includes questions on where women gave birth and whether they would change anything about the care they had received.

Town councillor Jan Goffey, spearheading the campaign to restore full maternity services to Okehampton Hospital, said: ‘We need to get as many people as possible to respond to this. We must let every young mum in the area know so they can share their experiences of travelling to hospital at Exeter.

‘I am hearing so many grievances from people about how their granddaughters and daughters are being turfed out of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital within 24 hours of giving birth, whereas at the hospital in Okehampton they would have been in for a couple of days as first-time mothers and they were given time to adjust to being a mum. We have got to fight to keep the birthing unit in Okehampton because the town is growing all the time.’

At present, midwives based at the hospital provide antenatal care and baby clinics but the birthing unit and in-patient beds for new mums have been closed since July last year.

The NHS Northern, Eastern and Western Devon Clinical Commissioning Groups, more commonly known as the NEW Devon CCG, are canvassing women for their views on giving birth as part of a review of maternity services in Devon. The consultation was launched at the start of this week.

‘The purpose of this engagement process is to hear the experiences of women and their families across all maternity services in Devon, to help shape the maternity voices partnership, look at how we implement online maternity records and the options for how and where women and their families prefer to give birth,’ said a spokesperson.

‘It is important to note that this relates specifically to the national Better Births Five Year Forward View recommendations and not the clinical recommendations from the Devon Acute Services Review or the temporary closure of midwifery services at Okehampton and Honiton hospitals.’

The Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Okehampton Hospital, closed the birthing unit in July last year, describing it as a ‘temporary closure’. It last week extended this closure until September, saying it needed to ‘prioritise the acute maternity service’ at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital in Exeter.

A trust spokesperson said it had made the decision because it had not been able to fill a number of midwifery vacancies, and was at the same time seeing an increase in the complexity of its work as a result of implementing new national guidelines on maternity care.

However campaigners are worried about the temporary closure becoming permanent, with the long term future of the birthing centre still being considered along with those at other Devon community hospitals.

Cllr Goffey took issue with the clinical recommendation made by the NHS's Acute Services Review in Devon last summer, which is ongoing. It appears to be working against the midwife-led units, by saying that consultants always need to be on call for hospital births.‘They are making it more complex for people,' she said. 'For a small percentage of people there should be a facility to get them into a major hospital but most of the time it is not necessary. Giving birth is a natural process, it is not a disease.

‘It is very sad that our beautiful state-of-the-art birthing suite is lying unused,’ she added.

The survey can be found online at https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/BetterBirthsinDevon.