By MATHEW DEARNALEY

South Auckland health chiefs deny any direct link between their closure of birth pools and allegations that a baby fell on its head during delivery.

The Counties-Manukau District Health Board reopened three of its four birth pools yesterday after completing most of a set of improvements prescribed by the Labour Department's Occupational Safety and Health service (OSH).

New steps, wooden seats and a wider lip have been added to pools at Botany Downs, Papakura and Pukekohe, but handrails are not expected to be installed until later this week.

Midwives have been asked in the meantime to take particular care with women climbing in and out of the pools.

The larger of two pools at Pukekohe remains closed until a small foot-step is completed, but one pool that opened yesterday is at the centre of an investigation into a complaint against a midwife by parents of a baby suffering suspected cerebral palsy.

Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson has agreed to investigate their allegation that the midwife mismanaged their baby's delivery at the Botany Downs birth pool in October and tried to cover this up with false information to Middlemore Hospital staff.

The midwife denies the allegations, and has told the Accident Compensation Corporation's medical misadventure unit she caught the baby with both hands as it "delivered spontaneously".

But the parents, the baby's maternal grandmother and an aunt have given witness accounts of allegedly seeing the baby fall out of the birth canal and bounce on its head down a step on to the floor as its mother climbed out of the pool.

The midwife refused yesterday to say anything about the case, asking the Herald not to try to talk to her.

But she told ACC she feared the baby was stillborn because it felt lifeless and was not breathing before resuscitation began "well within" one minute of delivery.

Board chief executive Stephen McKernan strongly rejected the cover-up allegation.

And he said although the board did not consider it appropriate to comment on clinical matters under investigation by external agencies, the pool closures were "not directly linked" to the family's complaint.

Mr McKernan acknowledged that an OSH improvement notice issued last month for Botany Downs focused on safety aspects of its use "and in particular women getting in and out of the pool" as well as the avoidance of back injuries to midwives.

But although the notice did not require the board to close any pools, he said a management decision was taken to do so to allow time to discuss and make necessary improvements.

Midwives were shocked at the suddenness of last month's decision, saying they were not consulted and describing it as "complete overkill".

But a College of Midwives spokeswoman said yesterday she was unaware of the complaint at Botany Downs, and was saddened for both the family and midwife concerned.

Asked at the time about any history of accidents prompting the move, health board spokeswoman Lauren Young mentioned only a complaint about two years ago of an alleged back injury to a midwife.

A Nurses Organisation lawyer representing the midwife involved in the latest case, who remains a board employee and has had no internal action taken against her, could not be reached.

Ms Young said late yesterday in response to questions which the Herald put to the board on Friday that there was no delay in investigating the baby's birth, but no formal complaint was received from the family until April.

She said a skull x-ray and head ultrasound performed on the baby on the day it was born were normal and showed no evidence of trauma.

But the parents, who do not want to be named, cite a scan in November in which a radiologist suggested that damage to a part of the brain which controls muscle movement was consistent with "moderate to severe" oxygen loss.

The father said last night that he complained about the midwife to a paediatrician four days after the birth, after learning of her denial that the baby hit the ground.

He denied a board suggestion that the family turned down the offer of a meeting with health staff a week after the birth, saying he and his partner met the paediatrician then, although other relatives and clinicians pulled out of the appointment.

* A question-mark was omitted in yesterday's Herald in a Middlemore Hospital doctor's admission note that said the baby had a healthy pregnancy but was "delivered while moving to bed, dropped on floor?"