Plea to ease Covid maternity rules as women continue to get bad news alone


The majority of women who have received bad news about their pregnancy since December were on their own at the time, despite the NHS ordering trusts to allow partners to be present throughout scans, labour and birth, the Guardian can reveal.

An alliance of pregnancy rights campaigners have written to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, urging him to draw up a roadmap for easing visiting restrictions in maternity services.

The letter from the But Not Maternity Alliance – which includes Pregnant Then Screwed, Birthrights and The Fatherhood Institute – states that while progress has been made since NHS England issued guidance in mid-December, “there is still a significant postcode lottery across trusts in England”.

Updated figures showing the status of UK maternity restrictions across 154 NHS trusts and boards reveal that partners’ access to maternity services has improved since data was last gathered in October.

The data shows that 38% of maternity services across the UK allow partners to attend non-standard scans where there are concerns about the baby, and a quarter of services allow partners to attend antenatal appointments.

The letter says there is “huge variation in whether partners are allowed to visit their partner and baby on the postnatal ward”.

It says: “We have heard throughout the pandemic of the huge toll that these restrictions have had on families expecting a baby. But the continued uncertainty is doing even more damage. We cannot return to a situation where people are able to go to the shops, the pub and the hairdresser, to attend a wedding or a funeral, but not go through maternity care together.”

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In December the NHS ordered hospital trusts to allow pregnant women to have their partners present throughout scans, labour and birth, after growing outrage that women were being forced to go through labour alone or hear devastating news about miscarriages without the support of their partners.

In Scotland, plans are in place to allow partners to attend all elements of pregnancy, labour, and birth appointments under government guidance.

The number of trusts and boards allowing partners to attend for any part of an induction has risen from 5% in October 2020 to 56% in February 2021, while partner attendance at 12-week scans has risen from 51% to 76%.

But a recent Pregnant Then Screwed survey of 7,556 women who are pregnant or who have given birth since the December guidance found that 77% of the 530 people who had received bad news had done so on their own.

When asked if partners were allowed to visit on postnatal wards, 23% of respondents said no, 77% said some of the time, while no respondent said their partner was allowed unrestricted visiting.

Dr Edward Morris, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said the “intense pressure” of the second wave of coronavirus meant that in many cases the guidance issued by the NHS in December was not followed.

“We very much sympathise with women who have received unexpected news about their pregnancy alone and without the support of their partner,” he said. “The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will be felt for some time yet, and so we would encourage trusts to use innovative approaches to ensuring that partners can be included at all stages of the maternity journey as this is essential for the health and wellbeing of pregnant women and their families.”

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One respondent to the survey said she was told her husband would only be allowed in the hospital for active labour and an hour post-birth. “I feel new mums’ mental and physical health is being majorly neglected,” she said. “Surely this situation could be managed far better with Covid testing, asking partners to isolate and other measures.”

Joeli Brearley, the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said it was not right that as the UK opened up, women continued to receive bad news on their own. “Birth partners are advocates and a critical component of the pregnancy and birthing process and they must be treated as such,” she said. “So we are asking, for crying out loud, please do not allow socialisation in pubs without a plan in place to stop women giving birth alone.”

Scott Mair, of the Paternal Mental Health alliance, said the lack of access was hitting fathers, as well as their partners, hard. “I talk with dads every day that feel disconnected from their pregnancy and helpless to support their partners as much as they need,” he said.

‘My faith in the NHS is reduced’

Joel Hagan, a company chief executive, was not allowed to attend a growth scan at 32 weeks with his wife, Lilian. The scan had been ordered because the baby was found to be on the 95th percentile for size. “I wasn’t told I wouldn’t be able to attend. The letter didn’t indicate that and nobody said that until we were standing at the door,” he said.

“I was surprised because I had read that there had been quite a lot of concerns about the ability of partners to participate in, and more importantly support, their partners during the maternity process and I knew the government had issued guidance.” But when he asked to speak to medical staff via speakerphone he was told he would not be allowed into the room.

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He told staff that Lilian’s first language was Spanish, and her English comprehension was likely to be impeded by the stress of the situation, but staff would not change their minds, he said.

“Lilian felt alone, unable to ask in English what was happening, and fearing the worst. She had no one there to support her, which is self-evidently a distressing experience,” he said. “I was hopping mad at not being able to be present in the scan, because I felt the support was necessary. As the guidance is right-minded and clear, and there doesn’t seem to be a strong desire to follow it, my faith in the NHS as a whole is reduced.”

Lilian is now due to have a pre-term caesarean, and the couple are considering switching hospitals because of the visiting hours. “It’s clear that the NHS guidance, which is very clear and strong, isn’t being fully or consistently implemented,” he said.



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