It was a cold, dark night in December last year, two weeks into the General Election campaign. I had just got in from an afternoon of campaigning, wolfed down some dinner and was in the process of running out the door for the next session when my wife, Amy, pulled me to one side.
She was pregnant with our first child. It may be twee, but it was an incredibly happy, instantaneously life-changing moment. And, of course, it suddenly put everything into perspective: I was standing for Parliament but, a split second later, my priorities had shifted to thinking less about knocking on doors in the drizzle and towards the tiny, poppy seed-sized kid inside Amy.
Fast forward a few weeks, and the first scan revealed we were having not one baby, but two: a one in 250 chance. We were elated at the news we were having twins, and couldn’t believe our luck.
I accompanied my wife to every scan, every trip to the hospital – that is, until the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, the guidance changed. I was banished from my wife’s side and relegated to the car park, anxiously waiting for updates that all was well.
The rules were there for a very good reason. We needed to protect the NHS, and keep the risk to the incredible key workers in the hospital as low as possible. We understood the justification on an intellectual level, but that didn’t make it any easier emotionally. We are in the same household; she’ll have whatever I had. Why the separation?
Being pregnant at all comes with many potential hazards, but having a multiple pregnancy is officially classified as ‘higher risk’. There’s any number of additional complications that can occur at any point, simply because you have two or more children growing inside you. Reading the self-help books and online guides were informative but did little to reduce our stress levels
There were many times when I should have been by my wife’s side, when things weren’t going as smoothly as we’d hoped, but I was prevented from doing so. The guilt was palpable, and the impact real. It was made worse knowing that friends and acquaintances were going through the same thing. I subsequently learnt that many NHS Trusts were routinely preventing a partner or family member from accompanying pregnant women for scans and, in some cases, all stages of labour.
That’s why, when the tenacious Alicia Kearns launched her campaign in September, I was an immediate and enthusiastic supporter. It turns out that Government Covid guidance permitted partners to attend both scans and the entirety of labour, yet many trusts hadn’t cascaded this down adequately to maternity teams.
At that time, the guidance from NHS England was for expectant mothers to work out access with their midwife, who had total discretion on partner attendance. That led to national disparities, with large unintended consequences.
From the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary on down, the Government backed the campaign – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that was the end of the matter.
Yet three months on, a poll published this week for the incredible Twins Trust found that four out of ten women carrying twins or triplets were still being forced to go through scans alone. And whilst 40 per cent of families said they had one or both twins taken to specialist units after birth, partner access to the children varied from hospital to hospital.
I was able to attend the birth and, immediately after, I spent a few precious hours with my expanded family before being asked politely to leave. One of my boys needed urgent neonatal care, the other needed treatment for ten days after birth. Every day I delivered nappies, snacks and a change of clothes, but each time I had to hand them to a nurse – consigned to video calling my wife on the phone.
Whilst the hospital staff were truly phenomenal, it didn’t change the fact that, in June of this year, I was prevented from seeing my newborn children and wife when they needed me the most.
Thankfully, that research, and yet more campaigning from MPs, led to NHS England this week issuing new guidance telling maternity teams them that expectant mothers will have a right to “access to support from a person of her choosing at all stages of her maternity journey”. These people will get a rapid Covid test on arrival, and so there’s no reason why partners shouldn’t be with pregnant women every step of the way. Why on earth did it take three months to communicate something so straightforward?
Back in June when the contractions started, I was continuing my increasingly dependent relationship with the hospital car park. Being separated from my wife as she started labour was for me emotionally (if not physically) agonising. Amy was incredibly brave, and for all intents and purposes had to go through 90 per cent of the labour on her own, frantically snatching the odd minute here and there to Whatsapp or call me.
When the moment came, thankfully, I was near and allowed to rush to her side. The birth was complicated, but the team at East Surrey Hospital could not have supported us better. The professionalism and the care we experienced was world-class, and while the entire experience was impacted by the pandemic it was nevertheless a feeling of total, unadulterated joy when little Milo and Rocco entered the world at 5.04am and 5.18am respectively.
We were lucky: many others have had significantly more traumatic experiences exacerbated by partners not being present. Seventy-nine per cent of those quoted in the Twins Trust survey said the pandemic had taken a toll on their mental health, with 47 per cent saying they were allowed to bring a partner to some but not all ultrasounds. And with approximately 19 per cent of expectant mothers saying they received worrying news at a scan, it should be easy to see why this new direction from NHS England is so vitally important.
There is a broader lesson that I hope will be taken from this situation. The pandemic is sadly far from over, and it will take some time for the hope-giving vaccine to be rolled out sufficiently. Roughly 1,800 babies are born in the UK every month. These 1,800 women and their partners deserve to know what they can and can’t do as early and as clearly as possible. The virus has complicated what is an already tricky, stressful process. I hope NHS England and their subsidiary hospitals will learn from this experience to better communicate to their expectant mothers.
A pandemic pregnancy is tough enough; let’s try to ease some of the added anxiety as parents-to-be prepare to bring their little ones into the world.