HOSPITAL campaigners say they are optimistic that Whitehaven’s consultant-led maternity unit will now be saved.

It comes after a senior health leader told a public meeting that key improvements have been made to the existing service at West Cumberland Hospital.

Local NHS bosses insist it is still too early to say whether enough progress has been made to prevent consultant-led care being centralised in Carlisle. But campaigners say it is the strongest indication yet that their fight for maternity services could finally be won.

A 12-month trial period, to determine whether recruitment problems and other issues could be overcome, is due to end at the end of the month.

An independent review group will then look at the evidence, and make a recommendation about the future of Whitehaven’s obstetrics unit.

Annette Robson, from the We Need West Cumberland Hospital campaign group, said although they are still awaiting a final decision there is a new sense of optimism.

“After years of campaigning to retain vital hospital services, we are pleased to hear some positive news about our maternity services,” she said.

Campaigners were reacting to comments made by Stephen Eames, chief executive of North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, at a meeting of the West Cumbria Community Forum (WCCF).

Fellow campaigner Mahesh Dhebar, a retired West Cumberland Hospital consultant, was among those who attended.

He said: “Stephen Eames said, and I quote, that the service has been improving, the CQC (Care Quality Commission) report is good, recruitment is good, and there is a strong likelihood the consultant-led unit will continue at West Cumberland Hospital.

“This is a step in right direction, and wind in the sails of west Cumbrian health care.”

When asked to clarify what was said, Mr Eames - who is also leader of the North Cumbria Health and Care System - would not go as far as saying it was likely the unit was safe. However he did say: “There has certainly been positive progress over the last 18 months. The CQC report published in November was very positive about the services and about how women feel about their care, and we are making some real progress in recruitment.

“We are also working very productively with the community to support maternity and paediatric services. It hasn’t been easy to establish a new way of working in co-production but we are making real strides in some areas.”

It is years since the Government’s Success Regime announced plans to downgrade maternity services in Whitehaven and centralise consultant-led care in Carlisle. The proposals caused a huge outcry, with fears the huge travel times would put the lives of mums and babies at risk.

Thousands of people backed The Whitehaven News' Save Our Services campaign, opposing the cuts.

Following the backlash, health chiefs agreed to a 12-month trial - to see if issues, including recruitment problems, could be addressed. That is due to finish at the end of this month, after which the final fate of services will be determined. The final say lies with NHS North Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group’s (CCG) governing body, after an independent report has been published. This is due in early summer.

Hospital campaigner Lynne Davies said she hoped health chiefs would finally listen to the community and remove the question mark still hanging over the service for good. “I welcome the positive news regarding maternity, but with some nervousness because of misleading comments in the past from the management. The community has never wavered in its support for consultant-led maternity at West Cumberland Hospital. Confirmation in June of its security would be fantastic news and can only make recruitment of staff easier.”

Mrs Robson added: “We have always believed that, with a will to make it happen and a long term commitment to consultant-led maternity, along with other vital services, we could have the hospital we need and deserve.”

Jon Rush, CCG chairman, said they are awaiting the recommendations of the review group. Until then, services will continue as they are.

He added: “We were very clear when we said we wanted to really test the sustainability of consultant-led maternity services over a longer period, and now that the 12 month period is coming to an end we look forward to receiving recommendations. We will then reach a decision about the future of those services.”

The Venerable Richard Pratt, Archdeacon of West Cumberland, chairs the Working Together Steering Group - which has been helping health chiefs overcome long-standing issues.

He added: “The conversation has changed dramatically over the last 18 months, and while there has been more progress in some areas than others, the value of working together collaboratively is really paying off.”