A huge backlash against plans to centralise consultant-led maternity in Carlisle has pushed bosses to rethink – at least for now.

The Success Regime had proposed downgrading services, leaving just a midwife-led unit at the West Cumberland Hospital.

But, following widespread opposition, NHS Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group’s governing body has agreed to give the service a 12-month reprieve to see if recruitment problems can be tackled.

If successful, it will secure the service long term.

However, if not, bosses say they will have no choice but to push ahead with the move – forcing women in labour to travel 40 miles along the A595.

The decision followed a debate by members of the committee, who all agreed that recruiting maternity, paediatric and anaesthetic consultants was the key issue for Whitehaven.

Despite serious fears for the safety of mothers and babies, nurse member Ruth Gildert said she felt centralising consultant-led services in Carlisle was a viable option, using rural Scotland as an example.

But Jon Rush said other members had “struggled” with the maternity options, knowing the strength of feeling in the local community. “What we are proposing shows we have listened,” he said.

West Cumbrian panel member Les Hanley raised concerns about whether consultants will want to come to a service that could close next year.

“I’m not convinced 12 months is actually long enough,” he said.

But Geoff Joliffe stressed: “12 months doesn’t start from today. It’ll be from when we are ready to start.”

The committee pledged to work with the local community to tackle recruitment, and also set up an independent review panel.

The recommendation was passed, though Mr Hanley voted against it. He said: “We need assurances that there is a will to succeed. Unless there’s a commitment, it’s difficult to feel confidence.”

The committee also pushed through the Success Regime’s preferred option for children’s services, which will see those with more serious conditions sent to Carlisle. There will still be overnight beds, but only for monitoring. Although the least worse option, protesters had hoped to retain the current level of service in Whitehaven.

Afterwards campaigners had mixed feelings about the maternity reprieve. There had been real fears Whitehaven’s consultant-led unit would be downgraded, so there was an element of relief.

But at the same time many felt the caveat in the decision – that they would prepare in case recruitment proved impossible – was worrying.

It was also pointed out that the option agreed – option one – is not exactly as what is there now, with some higher risk births still set to be transferred to the Cumberland Infirmary.

Mahesh Dhebar had hoped they would give the service three to five years grace to stabilise it and make it attractive to new staff.

He added: “Even option one is a downgrade of maternity services. Some mothers will still need to travel to Carlisle. There will not be a consultant paediatrician 24/7 at West Cumberland Hospital.”

Midwife Louise Cartmell said: “It’s a stay of execution. The public have been duped into thinking option one is what we have got already.

“It is not. They will be transferring high-risk deliveries, reducing our numbers and then reducing our sustainability.”

Annette Robson, of the We Need West Cumberland Hospital group, added: “I was really hoping they would secure it long term. I hoped they would remove the uncertainty. They haven’t done that.”

Retired midwife Belinda Cooper said: “It’s very disappointing. For midwives it’s more uncertainty. What they wanted was the status quo.”

Andrea Murray, who suffered complications during the birth of her son Benjamin at the West Cumberland Hospital, said she was “stunned and angry”. She added: “It’s no news at all. It has just prolonged the process of uncertainty, as we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

“They’re acting if they’re trying to save it, but they’re not and I don’t think they will.

“They won’t be able to recruit during that 12- month period. Who would want to work there knowing what they’re preparing for?”

But bosses insisted they are committed to recruitment, and have listened.

Stephen Eames, chief executive of North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, called on the community to work with them to make it work.

“This will require an effort from everyone. We need to move away from the understandable challenges and difficulties. We’ve heard what’s been said, let’s now move along,” he said.

Success Regime boss Sir Neil McKay gave the public credit for changing minds.

“We hope there will be some recognition that we have listened damned hard. This idea was born out of the public concern,” he said.

New Copeland MP Trudy Harrison added: “Everyone involved in local health services must get behind that review and the recruitment and retention campaign to secure the staff we need now and in the future.”