When Jess and Patrick discovered they were expecting their first baby in the new year, they looked forward to an early glimpse of their unborn child via an ultrasound scan.
But the couple, who live in the north-west of England, were soon told that Patrick would not be able to attend any antenatal appointments, including routine scans at 12 and 20 weeks. When their baby begins its journey into the world, Patrick will be permitted to join Jess only when labour is fully established, and he must leave an hour after delivery. He will not be able to visit his new family in hospital again.
“It’s taken the shine off the pregnancy,” said Jess, a junior doctor. “Patrick hasn’t been able to come to a single appointment. It’s making me very anxious and stressed – I’ve had actual nightmares about things going wrong and Patrick not being with me. He’s had to wait at home when I’ve gone for appointments, worrying and waiting for me to call to say everything’s OK.”
The hospital where Jess will give birth is among 43% of NHS trusts that – despite official guidance – have not eased restrictions imposed during lockdown on partners attending antenatal appointments, being present throughout labour, and staying with new mothers and babies after the birth. And as Covid transmissions rise across the UK, almost a quarter of NHS trusts have said they expect to reimpose such restrictions.
“Trusts in the north-west of England are starting to reinstate restrictions, and that could have a domino effect,” said Sebastian Walsh, a public health specialty registrar who gathered data from freedom of information requests on Covid-related maternity service restrictions.
“There is a postcode lottery, with different rules applying in different trusts,” he added, despite guidance on access for birth partners issued last month by NHS England, the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Last week, Liverpool Women’s Hospital – currently in tier 3 – said it had “made the difficult decision” to stop partners visiting mothers and babies on antenatal and postnatal wards, and from attending antenatal appointments, apart from scans at 12 and 20 weeks. On Thursday, hospitals in the North West Anglia trust reintroduced a ban on partners at routine antenatal appointments. “Anecdotally, we are picking up rising anxiety among pregnant women about this,” said Joeli Brearley, founder of the campaign organisation Pregnant Then Screwed. “This is likely to get worse over the coming months as we see a rollback of the advances made over the summer.”
Last week, a coalition of organisations campaigning around maternity and parental rights wrote to NHS England warning that some trusts were “starting to backtrack”. Partners should be permitted to attend all scans, antenatal appointments, labour inductions and assessments, and a “significant number of hours per day on inpatient wards and in neonatal units”, their letter said.
Pregnant women have posted photos of their bumps on social media in support of the #ButNotMaternity campaign to lift restrictions on birth partners, and a petition has gathered more than half a million signatures.
The organisation Birthrights is considering the possibility of a legal challenge. It saw a 300% increase in calls to its advice line between April and September, almost a third of which concerned partner restrictions.
“Women are angry that you can go to a restaurant or have a haircut but you can’t have your partner by your side at these significant moments,” said Maria Booker, programmes director of Birthrights.
Campaigners point to evidence that mothers and babies have better clinical outcomes when a woman’s partner is actively involved in the pregnancy and present throughout labour.
“This is not just about emotional support, though that’s important. Partners act as advocates and raise concerns when women may not be in a position to do so,” said Alicia Kearns, the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, who is expecting her second baby in January and is campaigning to lift restrictions on birth partners.
“Under tier 3, 15 people from different households can go to a wedding but you can’t have one person from the same household or support bubble with you for scans and in all stages of labour. It’s not right and it’s not fair.”
In some cases, people have had to sit in a carpark while their partner gets terrible news inside a hospital, Kearns said. She was contacted by a woman with impaired vision whose partner was unable to attend a scan, and a deaf woman whose partner could not be with her throughout labour.
“In some trusts, there is a real absence of compassion, let alone common sense,” she said.