The claim

“It makes a huge difference to patients that there are now more midwives working in the NHS than ever before.”

Health Minister Simon Burn, Conservative Party press release, 21 February 2012

The analysis

The Conservative party boasted today that there are “more midwives working in the NHS than ever before”.

The official annual figures are published next month, but the Tories have used provisional figures to show that since the election the number of midwives has climbed by 4.4 per cent to 21,028 in England.

The government only started counting them in 1995, and by this measure there are more than ever recorded – in 1995 there were 18,034 full-time equivalent midwives (this tots up the hours worked; rather than doing a headcount of all workers – which includes part time midwives).

This amounts to 896 more midwives, however official figures show that the number of births in England are expected to climb from 687,007 this year to 723,000 by 2014-15.

Nevertheless, Health Minister Simon Burns has insisted the boost in the number of midwives will make a “huge difference” to patients.

Will they make a huge difference? We think this depends on how many midwives there are per child born.

And if you look at that ratio, in 1995 there were 34 newborn babies to every midwife. Fifteen years later in 2010, the ratio was 33 babies to every midwife. This is a small improvement.

However, if you look at it year-by-year, the number of babies per midwives was actually lower between 1999 and 2005 – hovering between 31 or 32 babies to each midwife. Since 2005,  it has climbed back up.

Today’s small increase in the number of midwives is less than a third of the 3,000 David Cameron previously promised and well short of the 5,000 extra midwives that the Royal College of Midwives is currently campaigning for.

The Conservatives dropped the pledge from the Coalition Agreement on the basis that “predictions now suggest the birthrate will be stable over the next few years”. Yet as we show above, the ONS projects a rise in birth figures before the next parliament.

The verdict

The birth rate in England climbed steadily by 15 per cent between 2001 and 2010 – and official statistics predict a further 5 per cent rise over the next five years.

If the ONS’s prediction of the 2011 birth rate rings true, then this small injection of new midwives will have reduced the number of babies per midwife from 33 babies to one; to 32.8 babies to one.

Given that the last time that ratio was better was in 2005, FactCheck’s prognosis is that this small rise in the number of midwives will do little to offset the rising number of babies being born. To claim then that they will make a “huge difference to patients” seems over optimistic.

By Emma Thelwell

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