Campaigners warn NHS bosses will have “blood on their hands” following a controversial decision to permanently downgrade a hospital maternity unit.

Members of the three clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) covering East Sussex agreed this week to have a midwife-run maternity service at Eastbourne District General Hospital.

Consultant services, plus children’s inpatient facilities, will be based at Conquest Hospital in St Leonards.

A separate midwife unit will continue to operate at Crowborough.

Consultant-led units had previously been based at both Eastbourne and St Leonards but the Eastbourne one was temporarily downgraded a year ago because of safety fears caused by problems recruiting staff.

The change means women suffering complications in labour will have to travel to St Leonards or alternative hospitals in Brighton or Kent.

Campaigners who successfully fought to stop the service being downgraded eight years ago are furious and warn lives will be lost.

They also say the 20 mile network of roads between Eastbourne and St Leonards is “deplorable” and will add to patients’ distress.

Health bosses say the change was necessary to maintain a safe, long-term maternity service.

Save the DGH campaign chairwoman Liz Walke said: “We are devastated at this decision and it is going to lead to a tragedy.

“When something does happen, the people responsible for this change will have that on their conscience. They will have blood on their hands.”

East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust medical director for strategy, Andy Slater, said: “The trust’s primary concern has always been, and will continue to be, the safety of babies, mothers and young children.

“This decision puts an end to the long running issue of the provision of maternity services in East Sussex with the recognition that it is far safer and clinically sustainable to provide services from one consultant led obstetric unit.

“It represents the best way forward to ensure safe and high quality services for mothers, babies and children in East Sussex.”

Members of the East Sussex health overview and scrutiny committee will decide next month whether the decision is in the best interests of local health services.

They have the power to refer the decision to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt if they are not satisfied.