The HSE has tonight apologised unequivocally to the families affected by the deaths of four babies at the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise.

The deaths, which occurred over a six-year period, are the subject of a documentary programme by the RTÉ Investigations Unit, which was broadcast on RTÉ’s Prime Time tonight.

The investigation unit said the babies were alive at the onset of labour, but died either during labour or within seven days of birth.

In the cases examined by RTÉ, there were no congenital abnormalities, meaning the babies did not have a physical condition where their ability to survive was diminished resulting in death. Therefore, other factors led to their deaths.

A report into the death of one baby in 2008 found there were a number of failings in the care provided by the hospital to both the mother and baby.

These included a failure to recognise when the baby was in distress during labour and the inappropriate use of a drug used to increase the rate of contractions.

A number of recommendations were made in the report to improve patient safety.

However, the investigations unit has learned that other babies subsequently died in very similar circumstances and that the review of these cases also found failings in the care provided.

The care failures in these cases showed strong similarities to the failures in the earlier case.

The programme finds the hospital and HSE had failed to implement the previous recommendations, which may have saved the babies' lives.

The investigations unit also discovered that neither the hospital nor the HSE informed the bereaved families that an investigation had taken place in their case or that a report had been produced until years later.

One mother only learned of the investigation and report five years after her baby died.

Serious shortcomings

In a statement, the HSE and the hospital said they "apologise unequivocally to the families" for any failings.

They said: "The HSE and the hospital accept that there were serious shortcomings in these cases.

"There were unacceptable delays in completing reports, communicating with families, and in acting on recommendations."

They said National Director of Acute Hospitals Ian Carter is in a position to meet the families to discuss any concerns they have.

Earlier, Director General of the HSE Tony O'Brien said that any loss of a baby in any circumstances is an enormous tragedy.

Mr O'Brien said that aside from clinical issues, it did appear there may be shortcomings in the way families were related to.

He said he had not seen tonight's programme, but that perinatal mortality was a feature of all health systems.

Mr O'Brien said the performance of the Midland Regional and other hospitals was not out of line with international norms.

Meanwhile, Minister for Health James Reilly has asked the secretary general of the Department of Health to ask the chief medical officer to issue him with a report on the deaths of the four babies.

Mr Reilly said that following the medical officer's report he will take whatever actions have to be taken to make sure there is not a repeat of the situation.

Mr Reilly said transparency is needed and patient safety is at the core of his objectives.

One of the main priorities of the National Service Plan is to ensure that proper patient service is delivered across the board in the Health Service Executive, the minister added.