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Women in labour sent to Aberdeen by ambulance most Christmases after downgrade, Dr Gray's maternity figures show

By Lewis McBlane

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WOMEN in labour were forced to take ambulance journeys from Elgin to Aberdeen during most Christmas periods since the Dr Gray's maternity downgrade.

Women were sent to Aberdeen by ambulance while in labour most years since 2018...Picture: Daniel Forsyth
Women were sent to Aberdeen by ambulance while in labour most years since 2018...Picture: Daniel Forsyth

New figures confirm that journeys took place between Christmas Eve and January 2 in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2023.

The data also shows that the number of births at Dr Gray's Hospital plummeted after the 2018 maternity downgrade.

NHS Grampian did not release the exact numbers to avoid identification – but up to four could have been sent each year.

The number of women in labour sent by ambulance to Aberdeen before the downgrade was not recorded, NHS Grampian claimed.

However, the health board said work is underway to bring a consultant-led maternity service back to Moray, with three consultants having recently been appointed.

Maternity campaigners Keep Mum, Douglas Ross MP and Richard Lochhead all agreed that the new information underscored the importance of bringing a full maternity service back to Moray.

Figures were released by NHS Grampian following a Freedom of Information Request by The Northern Scot, which also included details of births at Dr Gray's since 2013.

Between December 24 and January 2, 2017, there were 29 births – slightly higher than the five-year average of 27.

However, after the downgrade in 2018, the number dropped by 77 per cent – to six.

And less than five babies were born at the hospital over the festive period in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Kirsty Watson from campaign group Keep Mum said it was: "always very concerning to hear of women being transferred in an ambulance while in labour, sometimes even advanced labour."

Recent "treacherous" road conditions and the fact mums have "no alternative but to travel", underscored the tough reality of the emergency transfers.

She added that the group "will not be satisfied until nearly all Moray women give birth in Elgin."

"The low numbers of births over the Christmas period from 2019 onwards confirm what we already know – the downgrade of the maternity unit means that nearly all Moray women continue to give birth in Aberdeen," she said.

"We will not be satisfied until nearly all Moray women give birth in Elgin.

"We are currently waiting for NHS Grampian to publish a detailed workforce plan which shows how specialist maternity services will gradually be restored to Dr Gray’s Hospital."

On the topic of transfers during difficult weather, Ms Waston questioned NHS Grampian's planned use of 4x4 charity Community Offroad Transport Action Group (Cotag).

"Regarding transfers, it is always very concerning to hear of women being transferred in an ambulance while in labour, sometimes even advanced labour," she said.

"Road conditions have often been treacherous during recent weeks with the police sometimes advising people not to travel unless absolutely necessary.

"Obviously, women in labour have no alternative but to travel.

"We have repeatedly asked NHS Grampian to explain how they will support women if the road conditions are impassible.

"Will medical support be organised at Dr Gray’s Hospital so that women can give birth safely there?

"We note that NHS Grampian has said that the charity Cotag with 4x4 vehicles can help transport women in labour.

"But we have not been told how that might work in practice.

"More information is required."

Douglas Ross MP said the new figures showed that the "vast majority" of Moray mums have had to give birth elsewhere since the downgrade.

Despite positive announcements, he added there have been "few signs of progress to date and very little updates to campaigners and the community about what is going on."

“I know from personal experience how bad the journey between Elgin and Aberdeen is when your partner is in labour in the back of an ambulance," he said.

"There is never a good time to make this journey, but at the height of winter over the festive period adds even more stress and concern at what should be such a positive moment in people’s lives.

“We really need to see progress on reinstating the full consultant led service so we can reduce the number of mums who are transferred in labour to Aberdeen.”

Moray MSP Richard Lochhead encouraged NHS Grampian to provide regular updates to the community.

He said: “The low numbers of women giving birth at Dr Gray’s during this period is a stark reminder of why the restoration of consultant-led services in Moray is so hugely important.

“To give the public confidence in plans to restore these services, NHS Grampian should provide regular updates to the community including key milestones and details of work being done to ensure the workforce is in place to support the service.”

Jane Gill, programme director for the joint NHS Grampian and Highland Maternity Collaborative, said the health boards are "committed to expanding maternity services in Moray."

She also revealed that three new consultants in obstetrics and gynaecology are set to start work at Dr Gray's Hospital throughout March and April following amid a "far-reaching recruitment campaign".

"Our priority is the safety of women and babies, and that means steadily increasing the number of antenatal and postnatal services available in Elgin," she said.

"Delivering a full, sustainable consultant-led service by the end of 2026 is what we're working towards and that will require a sizable team, including a number of different specialties working in partnership across NHS Grampian and NHS Highland."

Midwifery lead for Moray Jacqueline Keddie said: "While any baby being born without the support of a midwifery team is not ideal, I think it's important to reassure people that these occurrences are very rare.

"We have an agreement in place with local charity COTAG to support us when road conditions are particularly poor.

"We work closely with COTAG's network of 30 trained volunteers, alongside Police Scotland and local councils, and in emergency circumstances we can call upon their experienced 4x4 vehicle response team to provide assistance with transporting people and/or equipment, or putting safety measures in place.

"Like all other health boards, we can also call upon ScotSTAR during appropriate emergencies.

"This is a division of the Scottish Ambulance Service that provides safe and effective transport and retrieval of neonates, children and adults in Scotland."

She also encouraged anyone with pregnancy-related concerns to contact their midwife.

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