LONDON, March 20, 2008 -- Nearly half of NHS maternity units had to turn away women in labour last year because they were full, figures showed on Thursday.
Furthermore, a shortage of facilities or staff led to almost one in 10 of these trusts closing more than 10 times.
The figures, collected by the Conservative Party under the Freedom of Information Act, showed large maternity units were more likely to be forced to shut their doors than smaller ones.
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley argued the government's policy of closing small maternity units in favour of larger ones "flew in the face of common sense", and he called for the retention of smaller wards.
"Women don't want to have to travel miles to give birth," he said.
"And they certainly don't want to have to travel even further because they're turned away by the hospital of their choice."
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said 400 extra consultants are needed in England and Wales.
Maternity units are being put under additional pressure because of the growing birth rate, increased numbers of obese women giving birth -- who require extra care -- and the rise in the number of women in their 40s becoming pregnant.
Richard Warren, RCOG honorary secretary, said: "It is imperative to ensure that maternity units are appropriately staffed and resourced to meet the demands that the service requires."
Of the 147 NHS Trusts that provide maternity services, 103 provided figures.
Of these, 42 percent reported having closed or having been forced to divert women to another site at least once last year because of capacity problems.
(Reporting by Avril Ormsby; Editing by Steve Addison)