After the long awaited arrival of Prince William and Kate Middleton's royal baby, the first few days of baby George's life were rather slow and somewhat unsensational time for the British media. There were no statements, no photographs and few updates which meant there was very little to comment on in news columns and live reports. One story about the royal birth which did manage to generate a lot of content and an equal amount of attention focused on the location of the new baby prince's birth: The Lindo Wing, the exclusive private wing of an NHS hospital.
The level of specialist care and the comfort and privacy of the en suite rooms available at The Lindo Wing are probably not surprising for a royal birth (Prince William himself was born in the same Lindo Wing of St. Mary's hospital in 1981, and before his birth, it was the norm for members of the Royal Family to be born at a royal palace), but nevertheless, the birth of baby George at this private facility which boasts world-class consultant-led care in one of the UK's leading teaching hospitals has resulted in criticism. George's mother, Kate middleton, comes from a non- aristocratic background and was herself was born at an NHS hospital, Royal Berkshire NHS in Reading. Her decision to go private, has sent out completely the wrong message about the quality and care available at NHS labour wards across the country. In fact, 37 percent of the British public felt that she should have had her firstborn on the National Health Service.
Since Kate has been known by the British public, she has been celebrated for being a normal, middle class choice to join the royal family. Kate's upbringing was admittedly very comfortable, growing up in a beautiful part of rural England and attending a private boarding school. But her parents both worked and then ran their own business, and following her graduation, she was employed by them as a website designer and photographer. Despite this normalcy, she chose to give birth at the most exclusive maternity service available in England, the £5,000 per night Lindo wing which offers "bespoke care packages" and private facilities including luxuries like satellite TV with major international channels, a radio, a safe, a bedside phone and a fridge.
Upon closer inspection, Kate Middleton is not alone in her choice to go private when giving birth. In 2012, there were 729,674 live births in England and Wales, and of those, it is estimated that approximately 700,000 were delivered by the NHS. These numbers indicate that almost 30,000 babies were born outside the NHS, and that a significant proportion of women opted for private services. For example, in 2012, London's biggest private hospital, The Portland Hospital, reported 1949 deliveries alone. Statistics for the previous year indicated that another 1,000 women opted for home births using private midwives.
Last week's headlines did seem to address the more serious question of why some women opt out of the free of charge maternity services available to them, and choose to pay high charges to give birth in private facilities instead.
According to reports, parents-to-be are considering going private because birth rates in England are at their highest level in 40 years, leading the Royal College of Midwives to announce that NHS labour wards are under "enormous pressure" and "at the limit of what maternity services can safely deliver".
In 2010, a survey into NHS maternity services questioned 25,000 women in England to get their opinions on the care and treatment they received. Around 22 per cent of women said they were left alone by midwives or doctors and felt worried. These fears have been worsened by other reports which have revealed an NHS midwife shortage, leading to a lack of personalised care for patients. The Care Quality Commission recommends a ratio of "one midwife for every 28 births", but as recently as June this year, an NHS Watchdog revealed that one in seven of the 141 hospital trusts in England do not meet these standards.
In addition to the all time high birth rate, and a nationwide midwife shortage, labour wards also face additional pressure from an increasing number of complex births which result from age, weight and health and affect a significant number of pregnant women these days. These births can be more complicated and often require specialist care, which reduces the resources for women in normal situations.
These facts and figures- and the amount of bad press the NHS receives from individual accounts of bad service, might go some way towards explaining why those who can afford it, opt for private maternity care which includes a team of maternity support workers and nursery nurses are available around the clock to offer advice and reassurance to all new mothers. Kate Middleton's choice, The Lindo Wing, promises among other things, more space, more medical staff on call to support women, and in case of complications, there is also easy access to the critical care and neonatal units within Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.
Of course, most pregnant women cannot afford the cost of a private birth, which can rise to above £10,000 when antenatal care, caesarean sections and the cost of extra nights in the wing are added to the price. Despite the complaints about the NHS facilities, it will continue to be the obvious choice for the majority of women in England. It is hoped that plans to recruit 5,000 more midwives in the NHS to ensure quality and safety in the face of the increasing birth rate will help to restore faith in NHS maternity services.