Report shows stillbirth rise and growing inequality in England and Wales

New data released by the Office for National Statistics shows that in 2021 the rate of stillbirth in the most deprived areas of England is double that of the stillbirth rate in the least deprived.

Babies of Black ethnicity continue to be more likely to be stillborn than White babies and this gap increased between 2020 and 2021.

Published today (Thursday 19 January 2023), the latest ONS Birth characteristics in England and Wales: 2021 report confirms that the overall rate of stillbirth increased in England and Wales in 2021, following a long period where it declined every year. 

The Government is not on course to meet its ambitions to reduce rates of stillbirth by 50% by 2025 (compared to 2010 levels) or meet its ambitions for reducing rates of pre-term birth. 

In 2021, the stillbirth rate among babies born in the most deprived areas of England was 5.6 babies per 1,000 births: double that in the least deprived areas. In Wales, the 2021 stillbirth rate was a third higher in the most deprived areas compared to the least. The gap in rates between the least and most deprived was higher in 2021 than it was in 2020.

In 2021, babies from Black ethnic groups continued to have the highest stillbirth rate at 6.9 stillbirths per 1,000 births. 

The percentage of babies born preterm increased slightly from 7.4% in 2020 to 7.6% in 2021 but was lower than the 7.8% seen in 2019. Babies from Black ethnic groups continued to be more likely than other groups to be born preterm. 

Tommy’s Chief Executive Kath Abrahams says:  

It is unacceptable that we are continuing to see inequitable maternity care which means that people in the most marginalised communities have a higher risk of stillbirth.  

It is clear that some women and birthing people are not getting the right care, in the right place, at the right time and the results are devastating. These inequalities must be recognised and addressed by Government and action taken urgently to ensure that nobody is more likely to experience the tragedy of stillbirth because of who they are or where they live.

At Tommy’s we are committed to funding ground-breaking research to find the answers that can prevent babies’ deaths, reduce inequality, and improve support for mothers and pregnant people facing the highest risks.  

Our Manchester Stillbirth Research Centre team are working tirelessly to understand the causes of stillbirth, so we can find ways to identify who is most at risk and develop treatments that will give them the best possible chance of bringing home a happy, healthy baby. 

Meanwhile, the Tommy’s National Centre for Maternity Improvement has developed the Tommy’s App – currently being trialled in several NHS trusts – to help ensure every woman and pregnant person receives the right care at the right time and, ultimately, save more babies’ lives. 

We know there is still much more that needs to be done, particularly in making sure the Government prioritises safe, quality maternity care. Through the Sands and Tommy’s Joint Policy Unit, we’re working to make sure saving babies' lives and reducing inequalities is a national policy priority.  

There are ongoing challenges in the NHS which contribute to poor maternity experiences, and we know safety, and safer staffing are key. Recent reports have consistently highlighted how a better-supported workforce is vital to supporting improvements in maternity and neonatal care. 

Rob Wilson, Head of the Sands and Tommy’s Joint Policy Unit says:

Stronger action is required from Government both within and outside of the health service to improve outcomes and address persistent inequalities by ethnicity and deprivation. We know from our own work at Tommy's and Sands that people can face a range of barriers to accessing maternity services, and that there is variation in people’s experience of care. 

Maternity services are currently under substantial pressure. It is important that government provides the workforce and funding needed to deliver safe and equitable care, to ensure the best possible outcomes for all.