A senior NHS official has suggested women in labour could safely travel four hours without increased risk to their babies.

Roy McLachlan , of NHS Northern England Clinical Networks, has sought to rubbish claims that babies will die if consultant-led maternity moves from Whitehaven to Carlisle, resulting in a 40-mile journey.

His comments about transfer times of up to four hours have left local campaigners seething – with one labelling the claims as “clearly ridiculous” and asking why, if that was the case, there wasn’t one England-wide unit situated in the Midlands.

Two separate reports were submitted to the Government’s Success Regime by local activists in opposition to its controversial plan to downgrade services at West Cumberland Hospital .

They were written by local councillor Rebecca Hanson, who is now standing as the Liberal Democrat candidate to become Copeland’s next MP, and respected obstetrician John Eldred.

Both referenced national and global research to back up their detailed findings, that stillbirths and neonatal deaths would rise if mothers were forced to travel such long distances in labour.

Success Regime medical director Stephen Singleton sent the reports to NHS Northern England’s Maternity Network.

Mr McLachlan, its associate director, has now responded, claiming there is not enough evidence to back up their claims.

He goes as far as saying: “Overall, we do not feel that there is sufficient evidence in the papers referenced to justify a conclusion that increased travel times to the nearest maternity unit (at less than four hours distance) are associated with an increased risk of either stillbirth and/or neonatal death.”

Mr McLachlan admitted there was plausible evidence that it may lead to a higher number of babies born before reaching hospital. But said it was “reassuring” that even if these were more frequent, overall perinatal mortality rates aren’t “significantly” affected by longer travel times, again referencing journeys of up to four hours.

He accepted that longer travel times may increase the chance of interventions, such as inductions and hospitalisation, as decisions would be taken to minimise potential problems.

He added: “Detailed consideration of infrastructure issues, such as transfer arrangements and accommodation near Cumberland Infirmary, Carlisle, would help mitigate any potential increased risks.”

Mrs Hanson, who studied mathematics at Cambridge and has lectured in statistics at university level, described the response as a “whitewash”, claiming that NHS Northern England has simply looked for reasons to ignore valid research, rather than the real implications.

Rebecca Hanson “The claim that journey times of up to four hours are safe is clearly ridiculous, particularly when the report acknowledges that there is likely to be an increase in births out of hospitals,” she said.

“There is no precedent for the proposed travel times for women in labour in Copeland in the developed world because both the medical rationale and the evidence show that they’re extremely unsafe.”

Mrs Hanson added that instead of properly considering the evidence she and Mr Eldred submitted, which shows there are a strong links between distance and poor birth outcomes, the authors have made a “nauseating leap” to conclude it is safe to travel long distances in labour.

A Success Regime spokesman said that the comments do not mean any decisions about maternity have been made.

“The local NHS has been in dialogue with the public and clinical experts throughout the consultation, and many clinical experts over the last two years, to ensure a variety of opinions are considered.

“The Northern England Clinical Maternity Network was asked to review some information received and have submitted their response.

“It remains the case that all submissions will be considered by NHS Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group’s Governing Body before any decisions are taken,” he said.