Jeremy Hunt has ordered an investigation into deaths of babies at an NHS trust in the Midlands.
Seven of these deaths have been judged as avoidable by coroners.
Hunt made this unusual move after numerous bereaved families criticised the quality and safety of maternity care at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS trust.
NHS England and NHS Improvement will investigate the deaths, particularly as there is evidence that they were inappropriately explored at the time.
Five of the deaths reportedly involved failures by staff to adequately monitor the heartbeats of young babies.
Dr Edwin Borman, the trust’s medical director, claimed that the rate of deaths is proportionate for the size of the organisation.
But he also conceded that improvements could be made, and that the hospital has indeed acted to update its procedures.
“In the case of foetal heart monitoring, we have identified a number of cases where learning has not been fully implemented. We’ve put systems in place to make improvements.”
John Ellery, the coroner in the June 2016 inquest into the death of Kye Hall at Telford’s Princess Royal hospital, stated that errors by staff had contributed to the baby boy’s death.
“His death was caused or contributed to by failings at the Princess Royal hospital, Telford, namely a failure to reclassify Kye’s mother as a high-risk case on two occasions and a failure to auscultate [listen to] his foetal heart rate at two critical times prior to delivery.”
Other deaths are also under investigation, while an enquiry previously found that there is a lack of safety culture in the maternity unit of one of the hospitals within the trust.
There has been an unwillingness to hold staff accountable for failings related to the death of some babies, and the inquest also asserted that lessons have not been learned from previous tragedies.
The nine suspicious deaths include those of twins Ella and Lola Greene, who were stillborn in 2014 after staff failed to correctly read and interpret their heart rates.
Responding to the matter, the Department of Health issued a statement indicating the action that will be taken in order to address the problems at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS trust.
“Earlier this year, the health secretary asked NHS regulators to undertake an investigation at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS trust in light of disclosures that in a number of tragic cases standards of care fell far below those that parents would expect.”
Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust runs the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, the Princess Royal Hospital in Telford, Bridgnorth Community Hospital, Oswestry Maternity Unit, Ludlow Community Hospital, and Wrekin Community Clinic.
It was singled out by the West Midlands Ambulance Service as one of two in the region responsible for the most serious delays in ambulance turn around times in 2016.