Pregnant women in England are still forced to receive much of their maternity care alone. All NHS trusts imposed some restrictions to partner attendance during the first peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost half (43%) have so far failed to take any steps to lift these restrictive policies, despite NHS England guidance urging them to do so. It is known that the absence of partners throughout maternity care increases the risk of negative health outcomes and mental ill health, and isolates women.
Six in ten trusts are still restricting partner attendance at antenatal scans. In extreme cases, this means women hearing heart-breaking news about their babies alone. Jodie Ryan, an NHS nurse, told us:
“I had some bleeding and had to have an emergency scan. It was during this scan that I was told my baby had no heartbeat. I cannot express enough the devastation I felt …It affected my mental health dramatically and I had to then let my partner know this devastating news afterwards, which was horrendous.”
Her partner Dylan was equally impacted by Jodie receiving this tragic news alone:
“It made me feel 100% worse knowing my girlfriend had to take on the bad news all by herself. It’s hard enough me working away majority of the time but for both of us that news was the worst possible news we could have received, and she had to receive it all on her own, yet we can go and sit in the pub out of choice with a lot of random people. It’s a disgrace!”
Restrictions imposed by the majority of trusts (86%) have meant many women are alone in hospital during early labour which can last hours or even days. Although all trust policies allowed birth partners to attend once labour is established, the unpredictable nature of birth has meant that in some circumstances women have given birth alone. For others, partners usually have to leave within hours of the baby’s birth, with 99% of trusts imposing some form of restriction on partner attendance at postnatal services during the first peak. The research also found there has been immense variation in the restrictions and how they have been applied, leading to a ‘postcode lottery’, and confusion for women at a highly vulnerable time.
A senior midwife at an NHS birth centre shared that their team had worked hard to enable partners to safely be there from the time a woman arrived until the family leave with their baby:
“We have lived with this for enough for it to become a new normal, we all now know how to manage this safely.”
Another midwife working in a foetal medicine unit stated:
“We all know how important it is that birth is treated as a family event, not just seeing the woman alone, but that is what we are doing and women are going through this in isolation. Where is the compassion?”
Following the first wave, many NHS trusts have relaxed their restrictions, but 35 trusts (43%) have not, despite recommendations from NHS England, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives and Society of Radiographers1. Furthermore, 1 in 4 trusts explicitly reported plans to reinstate restrictions in the event of a significant second spike in hospital admissions.
Nadia Higson, Vice-Chair of AIMS (the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services) commented:
“We have received many heart-rending calls from people affected by these restrictions, which reveal a lack of flexibility to respond to individual needs and a failure to consider the mental health impact of blanket restrictions. Yet we know some trusts have found ways to accommodate support for women, at least for mothers with specific needs such as severe anxiety, or if English isn’t their first language.”
AIMS is calling on all NHS trusts to learn from best practice and implement NHS guidance as a matter of urgency to protect the health and wellbeing of women. To find out more about its campaign including resources to support pregnant women and their partners visit www.aims.org.uk.