THE number of times a North-East maternity unit was forced to temporarily close its doors to expectant mothers rose by almost 50 per cent last year, new figures revealed yesterday.

Darlington Memorial Hospital closed its maternity wards to new arrivals 26 times in 2016 – up from 14 the year before – according to data published by the Labour Party.

Last night a party spokesman claimed the figures were the result of understaffed and under pressure maternity units, and showed the "devastating impact of Tory underfunding".

But County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust (CDDFT), which runs the Darlington hospital, said the decision to stop admitting expectant mothers was always done in their best interests.

Across the country maternity wards were affected on 382 occasions last year, compared to 375 times in 2015 and 225 occasions in 2014, according to data provided by 42 trusts which responded to a Freedom of Information request from Labour.

At Darlington, temporary closures happened twice in 2014, 14 times the following year and 26 times in 2016.

However, at the University Hospital of North Durham, also run by CDDFT, the year-on-year change went from 14 in 2014, to 15 in 2015 and back down to 14 last year.

A spokesperson for the trust said: “Our two maternity units at University Hospital of North Durham and Darlington Memorial Hospital never close.

"Occasionally, the number of ladies attending one of the units is much higher than the number attending the other and when this happens we sometimes redirect ladies between the two units.

"This means we are able to use our staff and services effectively across both units to provide the best care for ladies, and is only ever for a few hours at a time.”

Last month it was revealed that Darlington's closure-threatened hospital maternity services have received a stay of execution after a decision over their future was delayed for at least six months.

There have been fears over services at Darlington Memorial Hospital since a draft of the region’s Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) was published, prompted by NHS England, which could see the hospital lose its accident and emergency and other departments.

The Labour Party data shows that there has been a 70 per cent rise in temporary closures for new admissions across the 42 NHS trusts from 2014.

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Health, said: “These findings show the devastating impact which Tory underfunding is having for mothers and children across the country.

"It is staggering that almost half of maternity units in England had to close to new mothers at some point in 2016. The uncertainty for so many women just when they need the NHS most is unthinkable.

“Under this Government, maternity units are understaffed and under pressure. It’s shameful that pregnant women are being turned away due to staff shortages, and shortages of beds and cots in maternity units."

Midwifery leaders called for action to tackle "significant pressures" on maternity services across England, which face a shortage of about 3,500 full-time midwives.

Sean O'Sullivan, head of health and social policy at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said: "This latest research from the Labour Party comes as no surprise to the RCM and really further proves just how badly England's maternity services are struggling due to understaffing.

"The RCM respects and supports decisions made to close maternity units when failing to do this will compromise the safety of the service and the women and babies already being cared for.

"Nevertheless, if units are regularly and persistently having to close their doors it suggests there is an underlying problem around capacity and staffing levels that needs immediate attention."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "Patients should be reassured we continue to have enough midwives in the NHS.

"Temporary closures in NHS maternity units are well rehearsed safety measures which we expect trusts to use to safely manage peaks in admissions.

"To use these figures as an indication of safe staffing issues, particularly when a number of them could have been for a matter of hours, is misleading because maternity services are unable to plan the exact time and place of birth for all women in their care."