It is time to end the postcode lottery for maternity support
NHS Trusts must implement government guidelines and allow expectant mothers to be accompanied by their partners for scans, antenatal visits and childbirth during the pandemic
Right now, thousands of expectant mothers across the country are undergoing traumatic labours, anxiety-inducing scans (sometimes to receive the worst news), and even in some cases delivering stillborns, without a loved one for support.
It is the sad truth that too many NHS Trusts are failing to protect women from these experiences despite the government putting in place guidance since June which states that expectant mothers should be prioritised for visitation and support to the same extent as those receiving end-of-life care.
When I had my first child, I was in early labour for 36 hours and my husband’s support was crucial. Having another person in the room whose paramount responsibility is to watch out for their loved one can make an immense difference, and this is borne out by the facts. A 2019 World Health Organisation study found that outcomes for women and babies were improved by the presence of continuous support; it is the most important factor in a positive clinical outcome for a birth.
I am expecting my second child in January. My local Trust has rightly adhered to government guidance throughout the pandemic, and my husband has been able to support me at my scans and will be present for the entirety of my labour.
The same is not true for all my constituents, and tens of thousands of women and families across our country. I launched my campaign to end the scandal of lone labour and scans because I could not countenance the idea that some of my constituents were being denied the support that I relied on.
I am grateful to have had the support of close to 100 Conservative MPs who have written to their NHS Trusts urging them to adhere to government guidance. The Prime Minister and health secretary have been absolute in their backing, as have midwives and clinicians up and down the country.
As a result of my colleagues’ support and the advocacy of thousands of women and their partners, our collective efforts have seen the number of Trusts restricting support at both scans and early labour fall from three quarters in August to just under one third, but there is still work to be done with too many Trusts now reimposing inappropriate restrictions.
I recognise that NHS Trusts are facing unprecedented pressure due to the pandemic and that they must take action to keep their heroic staff safe, but the prohibition of support for expectant mothers contradicts clinical, and common, sense.
The vast majority of pregnant women who have contacted me are shielding with their partners for the entirety of their third trimester. Indeed, the Whittington Hospital in London did not restrict partners even at the height of the first national lockdown. It did not need to close at any point due to Covid-19 and did not encounter the increase in cases that many Trusts fear.
The government recognises the immense significance of this campaign and the difficult balance NHS Trusts must reach. The Prime Minister’s compassionate decision to provide lateral flow tests is the closest thing to a magic bullet for expectant parents and NHS Trusts – helping keep clinicians safe while equipping women with the support and advocacy they urgently need.
Ultimately, it is for NHS Trusts to decide their own policies on maternity support, but I urge them to prioritise rapid tests, and I call on the Trusts to act in the best interests of the families they serve and their clinicians by implementing government guidance as a matter of urgency. Only then can the postcode lottery of support, advocacy and clinical outcomes end.
Alicia Kearns is Conservative MP for Rutland & Melton