ALL eyes will be on the Horton General Hospital this week as its maternity service closes its doors to all but low-risk expectant mothers from across Oxfordshire.

The temporary move, brought about by chronic under-staffing at the Banbury unit, is aimed at ensuring patient safety, but poses risks of its own.

Last week campaigners were left bitterly disappointed as Oxfordshire County Council's health overview and scrutiny committee decided not to refer the matter to the Secretary of State, voting five to three that enough evidence for the move had been provided by Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

Keith Strangwood, chairman of the Keep the Horton General campaign group, said: "I am at a loss for words. I'm shocked at the decision.

"I would like to remind those on this committee that next May their seats are up for election and we could have a dead baby as early as next week."

At present just three out of eight obstetric posts are filled at the Horton, with those consultants, and equipment, moving to the John Radcliffe for the time being.

Four more doctors have been offered posts and have accepted, but Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust now faces a race against time to register them all with the General Medical Council, hold induction periods at the JR and organise a visa for an overseas doctor if it wants to fully re-open the unit at the Horton by January.

Catherine Greenwood, a consultant in obstetrics at OUH, said: "This is an emergency and we aren't pretending it's the best we could have done.

"We are not here to say this is how we would like it to be. We are doing the best in the circumstances and the reason we are doing it is staff shortages."

Preparations are now complete at the JR for an extra 1,000 births a year if necessary, with extra beds brought in and elective caesareans moved to free up space.

A single ambulance will be parked at the Horton unit, which will be staffed by just one midwife and one care assistant at a time, for when complications arise during birth.

The trust maintains that 84 per cent of blue-light journeys from the Horton to the JR take 30 minutes or less but campaigners rubbished the figure.

Sarah Ayre, a senior midwife who left OUH last year, said: "The JR is simply too far away to ensure safe clinical care in an emergency."

A statement from OUH issued just before the changes came into effect said: "The trust remains focused on recruiting to fill the obstetric vacancies at the Horton General Hospital. There is a national shortage of obstetric doctors.

"In the meantime, we encourage pregnant women to consult their midwife, GP, or where applicable their obstetrician to help tailor a birth plan to suit their additional needs."