Four out of 10 maternity units were forced to shut last year because of a staffing crisis among midwives, a shock survey has revealed.
The disclosure is the latest blow to rock embattled Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt .
It comes after it emerged on Friday that NHS trusts in England have racked up a huge £930 million deficit in just the first three months of the financial year – twice as much as the same time last year.
One maternity unit had to close an astonishing 33 times in 2014.
The highest number of closures at a single unit this year was on 23 occasions, according to the UK-wide survey carried out by the Royal College of Midwives.
It warned that maternity units now faced an unprecedented challenge due to the high birth-rate, increasingly complex births and a crippling shortage of midwives.
According to the RCM survey, 41.5% of maternity units shut down at some point last year because they could not cope with the demand.
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The figure is up significantly on the 32.8% forced to close in 2014.
On average, maternity wards across the UK closed their doors 6.6 times in 2014 and on 4.8 occasions in 2015.
One Head of Midwifery who took part in the survey said: “The level of pressure everyone is feeling is now palpable. Worrying times.”
Another complained of working 60 hours a week – despite being employed on a 37.5 hours per week contract.
Almost a third of the senior midwives said they did not have enough staff.
At present, the NHS remains short of 2,600 full-time midwives in England.
And, an overwhelming 91.3% said their unit was dealing with more complex births than in the previous year.