Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has now ordered an initial review of controversial maternity plans.

This will be carried out by an independent panel of experts, which is due to report back by October 4.

It relates to unpopular changes to maternity services at the West Cumberland Hospital - which could potentially result in the loss of consultant-led maternity from Whitehaven.

The planned changes to maternity were referred to the Secretary of State by the Cumbria Health Scrutiny Committee.

It followed NHS Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group's (CCG) decision to approve controversial Success Regime plans.

It agreed to give consultant-led maternity a 12-month reprieve to see if long-standing staffing issues can be addressed.

If not, consultant-led maternity could be centralised in Carlisle, leaving only a midwife-led unit at the West Cumberland Hospital.

This would mean women who suffer complications while in labour travelling 40 miles by ambulance to the Cumberland Infirmary.

The other option, also approved by the CCG as a last resort, would be to send all births from west Cumbria to Carlisle.

But no formal progress can be made on the maternity changes until the Secretary of State has considered the referral.

Mr Hunt has now written to Claire Driver, chairwoman of the Cumbria Health Scrutiny Committee, with an update on the process.

He said: "I am today writing to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP) asking them to undertake an initial assessment of your referral.

"Should the IRP advise me that a full review is necessary, you will have your chance to present your case to them in full.

"I have asked the panel to report to me no later than Wednesday, October 4."

While NHS bosses await news of the decision, so-called "co-production" meetings - set up as a platform for the community and health chiefs to work together to overcome challenges - have already begun.

Stephen Eames, chief executive of North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the Whitehaven and Carlisle hospitals, had been expecting news on the referral.

However he stressed that they have already made good progress on recruitment at Whitehaven, particularly in paediatrics.

This is a key area for consultant-led maternity services, as a paediatrician is needed on site in order to retain the Special Care Baby Unit - vital in dealing with babies born prematurely or with complications.

"We are almost up to full complement in paediatrics," he said.

The news about the referral comes as the We Need West Cumberland Hospital campaign group called for an update on efforts to secure the future of 24/7 consultant-led maternity in Whitehaven.

In a letter to Mr Eames, Annette Robson, from the group, wrote: "We assume that you are not waiting for the co-production meetings to provide suggestions and that you are working on finding a way to sustain these vital services at West Cumberland Hospital? An update and reassurance that this is happening would be very welcome."

The trust has yet to formally respond, but said that updates are given at every meeting of the Working Together Steering Group - the co-production panel that has been set up in west Cumbria.

The next meeting is on Thursday, October 12 at the Lakes College, Lillyhall, at 6pm. They are urging people from across the wider community to get involved by attending the meeting.