Maternity units in Wantage and Chipping Norton that have been closed for more than six months are on course to reopen by the end of March.

Wantage Maternity Unit and Cotswold Birth Centre were forced to shut their doors to “low-risk births” on August 26 with the announcement citing “staffing problems”.

A presentation on hospital access and waiting times to Oxfordshire County Council’s Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee acknowledged “the disruption this has and continues to cause some families who will have to go to alternative sites”.

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It said that “staffing constraints continue” but “the aim is to put a plan in place to reopen these units in March 2022”. 

Sara Randall, chief operating officer of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, told councillors the reasons for being unable to staff the units to a level that would be considered safe were Covid-related absences and recruitment issues. 

“Sometimes with sickness and vacancies we have to have those temporary closures of the units and sometimes home birthing,” she said. 

“We have certainly seen that Covid sickness increase so it is really about that sickness and the staffing issues.

“Our prime concern is the safety of our mothers, their babies and the staff. We are hoping to reopen in a more substantive way later this month but it will be dependent on the staffing. That is under review.

“Looking at the south-east regional data, we are not the only area this is happening to. It is across the region and nationally.

“It is not something we want to be doing on a regular basis and that is why there is very strict guidance about closing it and notifying everybody.”

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Data relating to the impact of both issues on maternity services was requested for further scrutiny but approximate figures for the trust overall provided some context. 

“I know the Covid numbers are coming down,” she added.“At the back end of last year there were about 600 staff off with Covid, that has reduced to just under 200.”

She said that the trust was “doing well” with international recruitment to tackle a nursing shortage but added: “We still have high levels of vacancy in some hotspot areas which we are very mindful of.”

Committee chair Councillor Jane Hanna OBE said: “At the last meeting we heard the key theme was workforce and we very much want to support the local system in relation to that because we appreciate it is the number one constraint.”