CRISIS-hit Furness General Hospital’s maternity unit is in a race against time to avoid potential closure after a spate of baby deaths.

A health watchdog has ordered hospital bosses to implement radical improvements by November 21 or risk the ward being shut.

The deadline was set after inspectors found ‘major concerns’ with how the Barrow unit was run.

If it is missed, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) could issue penalties, recommend legal sanctions or even close the unit temporarily or permanently.

This could mean expectant mothers in Furness having to travel out of the area to give birth.

And Morecambe Bay NHS Trust could ultimately become the first trust to have its foundation status reviewed – leading to a loss of autonomy and financial penalties affecting hospitals in Kendal, Lancaster and Barrow.

CQC carried out unannounced visits to FGH maternity ward following the June inquest into the death of Joshua Titcombe, of Dalton-in-Furness, in 2008.

It found Joshua died of natural causes but could have been saved if maternity staff had diagnosed a serious lung infection earlier.

A further seven baby deaths have also raised concern, including the latest last week. Detectives investigating ‘a number of deaths’ on the maternity ward have yet to decide whether to include the latest death in their inquiries.

The baby was stillborn and the family is from Millom.

Monitor – an independent foundation trust regulator – said if hospital bosses failed to meet the improvement deadline they could face action – including a possibility of the board being dismissed.

CQC told bosses to improve:

* Out-of-hours emergency theatre staffing

* Respect and involvement of people who use the services

* The safety and suitability of premises

* Hygiene and infection control

* Record keeping

* Assessment and monitoring Monitor gave the maternity ward and services a ‘red’ risk rating following the publication of the CQC report.

A spokesman said they would be considering ‘whether it (the trust) was in significant breach of its authorisation as a foundation trust and whether regulatory action was required’.

“The immediate concern is patient safety; the CQC is in the lead here and we work closely with them. In the most extreme cases we would look to remove governors or board directors. De-authorisation of a foundation status is not something we have done before.”

Morecambe Bay NHS Trust admitted there was still ‘a lot of work’ to be done in quality control but a staff forum would address issues.

A second ‘out of hours’ theatre team was put in place a few weeks ago.

A new shorter route between the labour ward to the theatres had been introduced.

The hospital was also waiting for its board to give the go-ahead for a redesigned unit.

Jackie Holt, director of nursing and modernisation, said: “Changes have already been made to our services and this is just the start. We have fully accepted the further improvements that need to be made to our maternity services and have confidence we will address concerns by November 21.”

A high level team of doctors, nurses and midwives has been brought in to the ward to provide advice and work with staff.

Mrs Holt added: “I would like to reassure the public we will leave no stone unturned in making sure we get it right for our women.”

David Fryer, for CQC, said he was hopeful staff would comply in time with the deadline but it was to early to say whether the ward was in the clear. CQC would keep making unannounced visits and closely review the unit.

A summit involving all the major health authorities in the region has been arranged to monitor patient safety at FGH and Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

RLI’s acute ward was criticised after visits by CQC.

Standards in key areas such as staffing levels were flagged up as needing improving.

Barrow and Furness MP John Woodcock said: “It is vital that hospital managers and government ministers do whatever it takes to bring the maternity unit up to the standards that Furness families deserve and expect.

"No-one will tolerate losing or downgrading the unit - least of all grieving families who continue to go through hell as the police investigation continues.

"But in the meantime, it is important that parents-to-be know that the maternity unit is fully functioning and dedicated staff are working hard to give people good levels of care."