MATERNITY services in north Essex are understaffed and overstretched, it is claimed.

A study by the Royal College of Midwives found more full-time midwives were needed across the region to cope with increasing birth rates.

Staffing levels in the East of England were highlighted as the worst in the country.

Only one hospital in the region, West Suffolk, in Bury St Edmunds, is meeting NHS targets of one midwife to 30 patients.

In north-east Essex, there are 33 women to every midwife.

In Chelmsford, that level is even higher with 35 patients to every midwife and 36 to every midwife in Ipswich.

The study said the region needed to increase staffing levels by 41 per cent.

If not, it warned, women would be denied home births, units could close and breastfeeding rates would not improve.

Pat Gould, regional manager of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “It is deeply worrying the region remains so short of midwives with the birthrate increasing at such a rate.

“It is also not just about numbers. Births are also becoming increasingly complex, putting even more demands on maternity services.

“Without some serious attention and investment. I have real fears services in the East of England will be struggling to cope with the demands.”

Colchester’s hospital trust, which runs midwifery services at Colchester General Hospital and at community hospitals in Clacton, Harwich and Halstead, has recruited 132 midwives.

The trust said it was discussing plans with primary care trust NHS North Essex to recruit more, but despite not hitting the target ratio, it still had some of the region’s highest staffing levels.

A spokesman said: “The trust accepts, when compared with the gold standard, we need to recruit additional staff.

“However, we are confident our midwifery services are safe and of a high standard.”