The stories make for grim reading: women in labour while their partners wait outside the ward, miscarrying alone and receiving bad news on their own at antenatal scans.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, hospitals across the UK have imposed restrictions on maternity services, ostensibly to protect front-line staff and patients and to keep services running.
The restrictions, which vary from NHS trust to NHS trust, have included leaving partners out of antenatal scans, prohibiting them from being present throughout labour and not allowing them to stay with new mothers and babies after birth in hospital. Some trusts also limit access to services such as home births.
But a majority oppose these measures, according to exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield and Wilton Strategies, conducted on 28 October. Fifty-one per cent said restrictions on birth partners’ being with a woman in labour should be lifted, 29 per cent said they should not be lifted, while 19 per cent said they didn’t know.
Though NHS England published guidance in September encouraging trusts to ease the measures – in the devolved nations, there was political direction to remove restrictions from June or July – the strictest limitations were still in place in some hospitals that month. Only 23 per cent of NHS trusts were allowing partners to stay for the duration of labour by the end of September, according to a Guardian report. Forty per cent of women were going by themselves to their 20-week scan, when potential anomalies are identified. People are still reporting restrictions in various hospitals around the country.
While hospitals need to take precautionary steps due to the pandemic, critics say the measures have caused unnecessary stress and anxiety for pregnant women and their families. A joint statement by the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in September said that there had “not been a consistent approach across the country, leading to frustration and confusion among pregnant women and their partners”.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) advice is that “all women have the right to a safe and positive childbirth experience”, whether or not they have Covid-19. The WHO specifes that a choice of birth companion is an essential part of that.
Now, with the new tier system and with coronavirus levels increasing as we head into winter, there is concern that existing restrictions will be ramped up further.
A petition to Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the NHS has gathered more than 500,000 signatures. A social media campaign, #ButNotMaternity, has been joined by another, #ByMySide, in a call to end restrictions.
In September, more than 60 MPs, including former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, signed a letter urging the measures to be lifted.
That month, Alicia Kearns MP launched a campaign on the issue with the Mail on Sunday. When she urgently asked Hancock whether he would “push NHS trusts to stand by pregnant women”, the Health Secretary responded in the affirmative.
Even the Prime Minister, when asked about the same issue by Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner, made the same promise: “I totally agree that birth partners should be able to attend the birth – that’s why we changed the guidance in the way that we did. But of course I’m very happy to encourage co-operation between her and my right honourable friends in the health department to take the matter forward.”
And yet a quick look at the #ButNotMaternity hashtag reveals a plethora of stories from those still affected. One woman tweeted on 20 October that her partner couldn’t visit her for the first three days of her baby’s life. Another tweeted on 23 October: “I was by myself when I was told I was in pre-term labour and that my daughter was going to die. That will haunt me forever. Meanwhile my husband was sat in [the] car park oblivious thinking everything was fine. These restrictions need [to be] relaxed.”