From fear to maternity . . .

MATERNITY services at Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which have been facing possible downgrading or even virtual withdrawal, look set to be reprieved. The news will be a huge boost to staff and patients, who just months ago were staring at major downgrading of

MATERNITY services at Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which have been facing possible downgrading or even virtual withdrawal, look set to be reprieved.

The news will be a huge boost to staff and patients, who just months ago were staring at major downgrading of the 23-year-old Huntingdon hospital.

It follows a revelation last month that managers and clinicians, facing debts of nearly £30million by the end of March, had found financially viable and clinically safe ways to keep full accident and emergency provision and vital general surgery at the south-west Huntingdon site.

Managers promised that, although there would be major changes to the way staff worked, there would be no loss of services to patients, who would be unlikely to notice the difference.

But a huge question mark still hung over maternity services, which have been losing more than £2million a year because - at about 2,400 last year - the number of births is well below the 3,000 a year that is critical to sustain an efficient consultant rota.

Doctors, managers and the new Cambridgeshire Primary Care Trust (PCT) have been looking intensively at three options:

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* expanding the number of births at the hospital and keeping a full range of services;

* reducing consultant availability and downgrading it to a midwife-led unit;

* providing only ante-natal and post-natal services, with no actual births.

The second and third options would mean a massive reduction in activity at Hinchingbrooke. Only 400 of the annual 2,300 births do not require a consultant obstetrician to be present or at least available.

And moving births to Peterborough and Cambridge, which have little spare capacity, would involve heavy additional investment there.

The PCT said it now had a preferred option but would not disclose details ahead of publication of the trust board meeting papers on Friday, when it is expected to finalise details of a three-month consultation to start in mid-February.

The trust will make a final decision on the hospital's future in the spring, probably at its May 30 meeting, in Ely.

But a reliable source inside the PCT confirmed that the preferred option to be recommended to the board next week retains the existing level of maternity services on the Hinchingbrooke site. Managers have always maintained that the hospital could attract more expectant mothers, for example, by encouraging mums from new settlements such as Cambourne, and possible Northstowe, to have their babies in Huntingdon.

The reprieve is a triumph not just for clinicians and managers at the hospital but for NHS chiefs in the PCT and the East of England Strategic Health Authority, which first set the downgrading hare running but which late last year reacted quickly to overwhelming public opinion and has ended up a strong supporter.

Hinchingbrooke's interim chief executive Jane Herbert, who has master-minded the rescue, is on holiday this week, and a hospital spokesman declined to comment without seeing the PCT board papers.

Jonathan Djanogly, MP for Huntingdon, said: "If the rumours are true, it's very good news, indeed."

Shailesh Vara, who represents North West Cambridgeshire, said it was vital for the decision-makers to ensure the area, which was expanding by the day, was provided with all the essential services expected from a modern hospital.

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