Health watchdog seeks views on neo-natal unit changes

Battling councillors are stepping up the fight to stop moves to “downgrade” Southend’s neo-natal unit as serious concerns emerge about mums and babies being forced to travel across south Essex.

The Mid and South Essex NHS Trust is proposing to “redesignate” the hospital’s neonatal unit which means very premature babies will be cared for at either Broomfield in Chelmsford or Basildon Hospital.

Last year, Southend Hospital stopped admitting babies born before 32 weeks because of concerns about medical staffing levels and space limitations and has now come under fire for carrying out that move “without any consultation”.

It now proposes to make that change permanent.

Tricia Cowdrey, Independent candidate for Shoebury ward, said: “The downgrade of Southend’s neo-natal baby unit took place, allegedly as a pilot, without any consultation with the council, residents or any other partners, in December 2022.

“We know that the trust has never addressed the issue of transport and parents separated from sick babies are having to travel to Basildon or Chelmsford on a daily basis to be with their little ones.

“We are told that a birthing plan for those mums due to deliver early might include Basildon or Chelmsford, I fail to understand how this can be beneficial to mum, baby or the rest of the family.”

Campaign group Healthwatch Southend is currently running a consultation on the proposals and is urging as many residents as possible to take part.

According to the trust, since December 2022 14 mothers had their babies cared for at either Basildon or Broomfield Hospitals, or another unit, out of about 3,500 deliveries.

If neo-natal services remained at the hospital, he unit would need an upgrade which would cost up to £2million.

Jean de Tourtoulon, Lib Dem candidate for Leigh Ward, said: “You’re trying to separate mums from babies. Can you imagine getting stuck in traffic for an hour and a half.

“On the A127 if there is one broken down car we’re snarled up completely for hours.

“It’s terrible enough to be in that situation but to have to travel as well and if you’ve got other children it’s a lot and it shouldn’t happen. We need to build Southend Hospital like it used to be but we always seem to lose out.”

Launching its survey, Healthwatch Southend said: “We would like to know what people think about the trust’s plans. There are benefits – like more senior doctors in Children’s A&E, but increased travel time and costs is a downside if your baby needs care in Basildon or Broomfield Hospitals.”

Matthew Hopkins, chief Executive, Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Our priority is providing care that offers the best outcomes and high-quality care for families while making the best use of the resources we have. We work closely with families to support them to be with their babies, including providing a place to stay with their baby if needed.

“These proposals mean we will have more expert clinicians in Southend’s Paediatric Assessment Unit and be able to increase outpatient appointments to reduce waiting time. This will benefit thousands more families in Southend.

“During 2023 we saw only 14 families transferred from Southend. In the majority of cases this was done well before their baby was born.”

The survey can be found at Neonatal care (smartsurvey.co.uk)

Also standing in Leigh are James Miller (Confelicity), Mary Canet-Espi (Con), Stuart Allen (Green), Malla Gurram (Lab).

Also standing Shoeburyness are Kayleigh Burgess (Confelicity), Judith McMahon (Con) Fiona Clapperton (Green), Kevin Ryan (Lab), Chris Bailey (Lib Dem).

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Christine Sexton

Local Democracy Reporter