Many more expectant mothers may soon be seeking the services of private maternity hospitals
if government plans to close dozens of consultant-led maternity units go ahead.
Proposals unveiled by the Department of Health yesterday would mean that many consultant units would be closed, leaving local midwife-led units to handle the majority of births.
Dr Sheila Shribman, paediatrician and author of the controversial Making it Better for Mother and Baby report, insisted that the plans were about change not closure, and said that decisions would reflect local needs.
"There is no national blueprint," she said. "Women will not be losing access to a consultant should they need one. They might not be just down the road - there might be midwifery care down the road."
Dr Shribman also denied that the proposed closures were financially motivated.
"In fact, if you look at some reconfigurations proposed there might be a need for increased investment," she claimed.
However, the plans could mean that many women in labour would have to travel further to reach specialist units capable of dealing with complicated births, and shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley criticised the report's lack of clinical evidence for a need for change.
He also demanded an explanation for the absence of Ivan Lewis, health minister with responsibility for maternity services, at the launch of the report and said that such "nimbyism…is patronising to expectant mothers who want to access good maternity services within travelling distance".
Mr Lewis has campaigned against maternity service cuts in his Bury constituency and his noticeable absence has prompted claims that ministers themselves are not behind the closure of maternity wards.