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HSE says 'conditions are right' for restrictions on partners in maternity hospitals to be lifted

HSE CEO Paul Reid said today he is writing to all maternity units about partner restrictions.

Image: Shutterstock/Motortion Films

Updated May 6th 2021, 5:58 PM

THE ISSUE OF partner restrictions remaining in some maternity services has been raised numerous times in the Dáil today, as the HSE has said the “conditions are right” for the restrictions to be lifted.

Labour leader Alan Kelly today asked the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to ensure there would be “consistency in service to allow partners to be with their partners in the delivery of maternity services”. 

Kelly described the restrictions as “barbaric”. 

Varadkar said: “I have heard and I do understand that there may be different policies being operated in different maternity hospitals. But I agree that a standard approach would be better.

“So I will take it up with the Department of Health and with NPHET in the next couple of days.” 

At a HSE briefing this afternoon, HSE CEO Paul Reid said today he is writing to all maternity units about partner restrictions and that conditions are right at the moment for restrictions to be lifted. 

Asked about Reid’s comments, Heath Minister Stephen Donnelly said this afternoon that hospital restrictions are not a political decision but that he had heard the comments from the HSE chief. 

“What I will do of course is, support the local infection prevention and control decisions that are made by the hospitals but what I want to see, what we all want to see, is as open access as possible within the confines of what the local hospitals believe is is safe,” he said.

We are engaging with HSE on it. We have to follow the clinical advice on this rather than trying to impose a political view but I fully share your view that we want to get this open as quickly as possible.

‘There was no one there to hold my hand’

Maria Kirrane is one of many women who has shared her pregnancy experience online in the last few days, under the hashtag ‘WhoseNeedsAreBeingMet’. She gave birth to her first child in Cork last autumn.

She told The Journal that although the restrictions around partners were understandable “to a certain extent” when case numbers were rising and vaccines were unavailable, she is “utterly disgusted” they are still in place in some hospitals. 

“When I was going to my first appointment at 12 weeks, I never imagined that I’d be labouring alone at the end of September,” she said.

I went through everything – all of the antenatal appointments – completely on my own with my husband sitting outside the hospital in the car.

“It added a lot of anxiety to the pregnancy,” she said.  

She said her pregnancy went relatively smoothly, but “it was the nightmare situation as September came and the [Covid-19] numbers started to go up”. 

“I ended up in the situation where I had a very long labour, and for most of that labour I was completely alone.”

Her husband brought her to hospital and then “sat outside in the car for a full 24 hours”.

“It’s cruel on the fathers as well,” she said. 

“In early labour, you don’t really get much pain relief. You kind of just have to go it alone so that’s the point where you need someone there to hold your hand. 

There was no one there to hold my hand and the hospital was very busy at the time, so I was in rooms alone for those 24 hours.

She said she is “completely and utterly disgusted” that some partner restrictions are still in place.

“As I speak now, there’s probably tens if not hundreds of women in the country going through what I went through back in October,” she said.

“After birth, there are going to be a lot of women who don’t want to talk about their experience. I don’t particularly want to talk about this, but someone has to.”

Stylist Justine King also outlined her experience on Instagram.

“Like thousands of other women across the country I had laboured alone in the pre-natal ward,” she said. 

Today I am sharing my experience because this week as I book in to get my highlights done, plan restaurant dinners with the girls and a return to the gym, it angers me so much that labouring women across the country are STILL doing it alone, with no proposed end in sight.

“It’s not a luxury to have your partner by your side to support you in labour, it’s a basic human need.”

Sinn Fein TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire also outlined his experience, sharing an image of himself standing outside a hospital window when his partner had an appointment in an early pregnancy unit. 

“Maternity restrictions are a constant source of stress & hurt for women & partners,” the TD said on Twitter

#WhoseNeedsAreBeingMet

The Association for Improvement in the Maternity Services – Ireland (AIMS) started the online campaign to call for an end to partner maternity restrictions.

Chair of AIMS, Krysia Lynch, said the group has campaigned for a reduction in these restrictions throughout the pandemic.

“The country is gradually coming out of lockdown and more restrictions are being lifted, but this area has remained exactly the same, pretty much,” Lynch said. 

“What’s core to everything is that partners are not visitors… They’re an absolutely integral part of the pregnancy and the process.” 

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‘Birth partners’ don’t always refer to romantic partners – they can be someone the pregnant person knows and trusts like a family member or a friend, the HSE said.

“For most people, the presence of a partner is their source of pain relief. When that person is removed that makes it a lot more scary.”

“Then, of course, for the partner there have been issues of that feeling of disconnect, of not being part of the journey.”

She said some partners can feel “powerless” and not fully “part of the process” of pregnancy. 

Lynch said there is added “fear and anxiety and worry” for both the person giving birth and the partner.

They’re anxious about this pretty much from the first time they have a confirmed pregnancy scan.

“The Minister [Stephen Donnelly] really has to step up here, show some leadership and enable the partners to be with birthing people in our maternity services.

“People have just had enough now.”

AIMS will hold small in-person protests outside maternity units and hospitals from 11 May to protest this issue.

HSE and government

The Chief Clinical Officer of the HSE, Dr Colm Henry, said last week that the advice is for maternity hospitals to allow “a partner present for the 20-week anomaly scan, during labour, and of course, the parent should be able to visit in circumstances where the newly born child is in a neonatal intensive care unit”. 

However, he said this hasn’t been applied across all units, possibly due to some Covid-19 outbreaks and cases in the community. 

He said the guideline to allow partners to attend maternity appointments should be implemented “more evenly” across all 19 maternity units and hospitals now due to a fall in cases and a low number of outbreaks in hospitals.

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin said in the Dáil yesterday that he supports “the need for women to be accompanied by their partners at all prenatal scans”. 

“We have sought in our engagement with the HSE to ensure there would be national uniformity in the application of these guidelines, and given that case numbers and the spread of the virus has been very substantially suppressed within hospital environments, it seems to me expectant mothers should be facilitated in this regard. I will continue my engagement with the HSE on that front,” he said.

He later said that “if PCR testing needs to be used” to help facilitate pregnant women to be accompanied by partners to scans and other appointments, “the capacity exists for that”.  

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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