Sands and Tommy’s Joint Policy Unit shares concerns over ‘darker corners’ comment made by the Secretary of State for Health

In a recent interview, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care suggested problems with maternity services were only affecting some ‘darker corners’ of the NHS. The Sands and Tommy’s Joint Policy Unit has written to the Secretary of State raising our concerns that this fails to recognise systemic issues harming mums and babies.

On Sunday 10 March, Victoria Atkins, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, made a number of comments on the safety of maternity services while on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme. During the course of her interview, she suggested that problems with maternity services were only in some ‘darker corners’ of the NHS and the Government was on track to meet its own targets.

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We’re deeply concerned with the remarks made by Victoria Atkins which minimise the issues currently affecting the UK’s maternity services. These comments fail to recognise systemic issues which need to be addressed, issues which are harming far too many mothers and babies.

Numerous recent enquiries and reports highlight failings at Trusts which are leading to avoidable deaths. What’s most worrying is the consistent themes emerging of widespread variations in care coupled with staffing pressures and chronic underfunding.  

Right now, we are not on track to meet Government targets to reduce stillbirth, preterm birth and neonatal death, and much more needs to be done to address the stark disparities many families are facing.

— Kate Davies, Research, Information and Policy Director at Tommy’s

The Sands and Tommy’s Joint Policy Unit has written to the Secretary of State, raising our concerns about her comments and asking to meet. We believe mothers and babies in every part of the country deserve access to safe, quality care and it is vital we continue to campaign for improved maternity services.

In the letter, Robert Wilson, the Head of the Joint Policy Unit, explained that the approach of viewing individual services as ‘outliers’ risks overlooking far more widespread issues. While there are acute issues within specific services, with similar themes and recommendations emerging from maternity safety reports, it’s important the Secretary of State recognises the need for a more comprehensive national approach to improvement.

Last year, the Sands and Tommy’s Joint Policy Unit published our saving babies’ lives progress report, which identified variations in the care being offered to pregnant women, birthing people and their babies as a key issue of concern. While there are plenty of examples of good, and even excellent, care, elsewhere nationally agreed standards of care are not being followed which is contributing to avoidable deaths. The report also exposed the stark inequities which mean women and birthing people from minoritised ethnic communities and more deprived backgrounds are at much higher risk of poor pregnancy experiences and pregnancy and baby loss.

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We know that at least 1 in 5 stillbirths and neonatal deaths may have been prevented with better care, this equates to over 800 babies’ lives that could have been saved in 2022–23.

— Robert Wilson, Head of the Sands and Tommy’s Joint Policy Unit

In her interview, the Secretary of State mentioned the national targets that are in place to reduce the rates of stillbirth and neonatal death by 2025.  

Yes, targets are essential. They help us track our progress towards a safer future.  

Sadly, without much stronger action from the Government, we will not meet these.

We await the minister’s response.

What is the Joint Policy Unit?

The Joint Policy Unit was formed in 2021 as a collaboration between the charities Tommy’s and Sands. Its aim is to halve the number of UK baby deaths by ensuring decision makers have access to up-to-date information, and maternity policy is informed by robust evidence. In May 2023, the unit published its first saving babies’ lives progress report.

You can also read more about recent work by the Joint Policy Unit here.