SOME of Scotland’s sickest infants are "at risk" because of major staffing problems at under-funded neonatal units, a charity has warned.

A report by Bliss Scotland, which campaigns for sick and premature babies, found that three quarters of Scotland's neonatal units are failing to meet minimum safe staffing levels.

Its findings, based on a survey conducted in June 2016, highlights a service "under significant strain" with an "alarming" lack of high-skilled doctors, including consultant neonatologists and paediatricians, in four of the country's eight Level Three units which provide intensive care to the most critically ill newborns. Shortfalls were most acute in rural and remote areas.

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The charity said at least 74 extra neonatal nurses are needed to meet the "bare minimum" in safe staffing, but that "inadequate funding" meant that only 13 vacancies could possibly be filled.

An earlier survey of ScotSTAR, Scotland's emergency neonatal transport service, also found that 39 babies were transferred due to a lack of capacity at their local neonatal unit in 2014/15, including 20 "extremely ill" babies.

It comes after a Scottish Government review of maternity and neonatal care recommended cutting the number of Level Three units from eight to three to provide "safer care". Studies have shown that the smallest and sickest babies are more likely to survive and recover when cared for within a smaller number of highly specialist hubs.

Caroline Lee-Davey, chief executive of Bliss, said: “Our report reveals significant nursing and medical workforce challenges, and that neonatal units across Scotland are understaffed and under resourced now; this is putting babies at risk.

"While we welcome the Government’s progressive vision for Scottish neonatal services, services for premature and sick babies are already overstretched, and any plan for improvements must provide sufficient funding to address the problems that exist now.”

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Dr Steve Turner, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the findings were concerning. He added: "The babies who are cared for in these units are vulnerable and require treatment by well trained professionals; it’s dangerous to provide them with anything less.

"There is no doubt that the Scottish Government is committed to improving child health and the recent publication of its vision for neonatal services is encouraging. But if such plans are not coupled with proper investment, it is difficult to see how they can be put into practice and make a difference to Scottish newborns.”

Health Secretary Shona Robison said: “We want to ensure that every woman and baby in Scotland gets the best maternity and neonatal care. The NHS already provides an exceptional maternal and neonatal service to thousands of women and babies across Scotland every year, but we know more can always be done to improve on this.

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"Our Review of Maternity and Neonatal Services, published last week, describes a new model of care for neonatal services based on what families and staff tell us they want, the latest evidence and best practice across Scotland."