MUMS-to-be and parents are hosting an emergency meeting tonight (Friday) to ramp up opposition to plans to temporarily shift Barrow’s expert maternity and special baby care services to Lancaster.

Furness General Hospital's consultant-led service - used by those expecting complicated births - will shift to the Royal Lancaster Infirmary (RLI) from next Wednesday, although routine births can still take place at FGH.

But campaigners suspect it signals the start of a downgrading of Barrow's higher-level service and its long-term transfer to RLI.

For mums anticipating complicated births, it will mean a 95-mile round trip down the A590 and negotiating Lancaster City Centre’s one-way system.

Some fear women will give birth en route to Lancaster, which could put new-borns and complicated pregnancies at serious risk.

However, trust bosses have insisted that their hand has been forced because the current consultant-led service in Barrow has been hit with chronic staff shortages and is becoming unsafe.

They say they want to safeguard standards for mums and newborns by putting them in the hands of expertise in Lancaster, and only temporarily.

But Barrow’s MP John Woodcock says the decision was taken without consultation.

Mr Woodcock said: “This is a shocking decision taken without the prior knowledge or agreement of the doctors who are supposed to ensure families have the health services they need.

"The special care baby unit and the consultant-led maternity service should be a priority for the area and surely they could have been kept open by a temporary transfer of staff from the other hospitals in the trust.

“Managers owe it to the families here to get the consultant-led service back as soon as possible and do whatever it takes to dispel suggestions that they want to remove special care for vulnerable newborns permanently in the forthcoming review.”

The MP’s wife, Mandy Telford, herself a mum-of-two, has been the driving force behind the Thousand Voices campaign which was set up three weeks ago to Save FGH Maternity Unit. It is collecting video clips of 1,000 people opposed to any downgrading and has had hundreds added so far.

Over the last two years, the FGH maternity unit has been under the microscope with police, care standards experts and trust board members, following the deaths of mothers and babies; some of which are still being investigated.

Ms Telford, who hosts tonight's meeting, said: “People are horrified at the prospect of mums-to-be, who are facing complicated births, having to travel 50 miles to Lancaster to have their babies. It's vital we step up the campaign after this disturbing news, so this is a call to all mums and dads in the area to get active."

In a statement, Sir David Henshaw, Interim Chair, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) said: “Over the past eight weeks, we have been filling shifts with the goodwill of existing and agency staff but the situation has now risen to a level where this is not enough to ensure safe staffing levels. We have also encountered a marked increase in maternity sickness levels since the escalation of the on-going police investigation.

“The safety of everyone who uses our hospitals is a priority for the new Trust Board at Morecambe Bay. As from 9am, Tuesday 5 February 2013, all SCBU services and consultant-led maternity services will be temporarily transferring from FGH to the Royal Lancaster Infirmary (RLI).

“Therefore as of the 5 February, we will maintain a safe, midwifery led service at FGH. We have no desire to keep the service away longer than it needs to be and are aiming for the service to return as soon as safe, sustainable staffing levels can be achieved.

"However, it would be wrong of me to guarantee the exact timings as there are many factors outside of our control such as resolving the sickness absence levels. The Trust Board has instructed the Medical Director and Executive Chief Nurse to report back in two weeks with a plan for the return of these services to FGH.”

Jackie Daniel, Chief Executive, UHMBT said: “We announced in November that clinicians had raised concerns regarding the ability to safely staff the SCBU at FGH and the action we were taking to mitigate against this risk, however this has now been overtaken by the significant, unsustainable levels of sickness absence.

“We will continue to work hard, together with the wider NHS to recruit more midwives and neonatal nurses. We have also liaised with other specialist and regional providers to second staff, but this has not yet proved successful.”

“The Trust will naturally be speaking directly to women who are due to give birth imminently and those who already have planned dates for delivery or induction of labour in the coming days. All pregnant women in the area will be contacted with regards to their ongoing antenatal care and also in relation to the plans for the birth of their baby.”

In the meantime, if any women have concerns or require further information they can call 0800 028 2340 between 8am and 10pm, Monday to Friday, and between 8am and 7pm, Saturday and Sundays."

She added: "It is important to note, if pregnant women are in need of urgent advice in relation to their own or their unborn baby’s health or if they suspect they are in labour, they should contact the delivery suite directly using the numbers they have already been given. In any other emergency, they should dial 999 and request an ambulance."

The meeting, at which Mr Woodcock will attend, takes place at Greengate Infants School, Barrow, at 6pm tonight (Friday, February 1).