Maternity task force set up in response to East Kent baby deaths scandal

The measure is included in the Department of Health’s full response to Dr Bill Kirkup’s damning report into maternity care at hospitals in Margate and Ashford. Credit: ITV News Meridian

A new national task force is being established in response to the East Kent baby deaths scandal, the government has announced. 

The measure is included in the Department of Health’s full response to Dr Bill Kirkup’s damning report into maternity care at hospitals in Margate and Ashford between 2009 and 2020.

It concluded last October that at least 45 babies could have lived if they’d received care in line with national standards. 

Health minister Maria Caulfield will chair the new National Oversight Group, bringing together “key people from the NHS and other organisations” to review “maternity and neonatal improvement programmes”.

The establishment of such a task force was a key recommendation of the Kirkup report.

In a written statement to parliament, Ms Caulfield added: “It is with a firm determination that we must learn the lessons from this inquiry, as well as those before it, to implement meaningful change to prevent further inquiries into failings in maternity and neonatal services across England being needed.”

She added: "Every woman deserves to feel confident in the care they and their baby receive. I’d like to thank Dr Kirkup and all those involved in investigating the circumstances behind what’s happened in these horrendous cases.

"In particular, I’d like to thank the women and their families, who have gone through so much pain, for engaging with the investigation and helping it reach its findings.

"I’m determined to see safety standards in maternity and neonatal care improve across the country. While this invaluable report focuses on the situation in East Kent, I want to see its recommendations implemented nationwide.

"This government will continue investing in the maternity workforce and working with the NHS to raise standards."

Helen Gittos lost her newborn daughter Harriet nine years ago and is welcoming the new taskforce.

She said: "I think East Kent was really bad, and there are a few other places that are as bad, but the sorts of things that were happening there are happening up and down the country. 

"This taskforce in its own right does absolutely nothing to help change that but it is a starting point. And if they can implement the things that Bill Kirkup has recommended, I think we will see change.

"I don't think we could have asked for more from Maria Caulfield at this point in time.  We needed independent leadership at a high level to make this happen and Maria, the Minister, and Bill Kirkup himself will hopefully give us that." 

Ms Caulfield's statement also confirmed the establishment of a local group to monitor the progress of improvements at the East Kent Hospitals NHS Trust. 

In May, the trust’s maternity services were downgraded by the Care Quality Commission to “inadequate”, with it understood that CQC inspectors considered shutting the unit at the William Harvey Hospital over safety fears. 

The new “local forum” – also chaired by Maria Caulfield – will be made up of representatives from “the NHS, Care Quality Commission and Members of Parliament whose constituents have been affected”.

Maternity care at the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (QEQM) Hospital in Margate and the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford continues to receive additional oversight from regional and national NHS bodies.   

Dr Bill Kirkup himself has been appointed to oversee the implementation of his national recommendations relating to staff culture and issues of “compassionate care”, “professional behaviour” and “teamworking”.

Dr Kirkup said: "I'm cautiously optimistic, I think this is an important step in the way to putting these things right, it's very important that we now build on that."   

"We have to make sure that this keeps going and that we fix these problems, not just in East Kent but much more widely too."

But he says more needs to be done to prevent such problems in the future.  

"This is the first step and it's vital that we now put that into practice, and make sure that we identify what really needs to change. We've said what the action areas are, we haven't said how we're going to make those change.

"I think it's absolutely vital that we listen now and that we recognise there are not just isolated examples, there's actually some underlying problems here, principally professional culture and teamworking.  I think those two things are absolutely at the heart of this."

The government also says it has taken steps to improve the quality of care for mothers and babies within the NHS, including £165 million of additional investment per year to improve maternity and neonatal services.

Following Dr Kirkup’s report, the government says the below actions are being or have been taken:

  • A special data Task Force has been set up by NHS England to better monitor patient safety in maternity and neonatal care nationwide

  • Relevant bodies will work with the Department to investigate how teamwork in maternity and neonatal care spaces can be improved

  • Relevant bodies will work with the Department to investigate how doctors in training can be better trained to improve teamworking and their own personal development

  • Trusts will have to ensure there is proper representation of maternity care on their boards

  • The Government will continue to work with NHS England on its approach to poorly performing Trusts and their leadership

  • East Kent Hospitals NHS Trust will continue working to address the problems identified and improve standards.