Seanad debates

Friday, 30 April 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Maternity Services

10:00 am

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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This is not the first time I have spoken about this issue. I addressed it last Monday. Senator Flynn told us of her happy news on that occasion and I wish her well.

The Minister of State is welcome to the House. I certainly hope he can bring some clarity to the issue about which I am speaking today. There is a need for the lifting of restrictions on appointments, labours and visits to neonatal wards in maternity hospitals. We often think of the Coombe, Hollis Street and the Rotunda as the three maternity hospitals in Ireland and while they are the main three, there are another 16 maternity units around the country. On average, 62,000 children are born every year. I estimate approximately 70,000 babies have been born since Covid-19 came upon our shores. It is sad that we have had approximately 14,000 miscarriages in that period of time. Pregnancies are generally happy and joyful occasions for mums and their partners although they are not without their stresses and worries, particularly for those who may have had difficult experiences previously. Partners have not been allowed into hospitals for scans and have only been allowed in for the very end of labour. For many women, that end of labour has come quite quickly and their partner has not made it in and that has made for difficult times. One mum of four, a strong and feisty lady, said to me that when she gave birth to those children, a big thing was that she felt she had an advocate there. She was giving away control and power and needed somebody who was there solely for her.Every woman I have met has spoken in glowing terms about the maternity services, the midwives, the doctors and the nurses. This is not about that; this is about the help and the support that needs to be given at a difficult time. I was emailed by one lady about having a miscarriage last year and how difficult it was for her to hear of it in a hospital setting. She had to go back out and within a matter of 20 minutes to explain and go through all of those emotions again with her partner who had not been there with her to listen to that.

Two ladies, Emma and Ciara, have set up this amazing Facebook page, In Our Shoes, and the stories would bring tears to a stone.

The fact that all of our hospital staff are vaccinated surely means it is time for these restrictions to be lifted. Dr. Colm Henry spoke about this and said that it would be expected that these restrictions would be lifted and Dr. Peter Boylan said the same but the problem is that there is no uniformity among our 19 maternity units. It is very clear at this point that pregnant women have suffered enough. They and their partners need the opportunity to be present for these scans, for the bad and the good news, to be present for all of labour, and to be able to attend neonatal units. I hope that the Minister of State has good news for us today because it was lacking in all of the positive good news yesterday. I thank the House.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising what is a very important issue. The senior Minister, Deputy Donnelly, myself and many others fully appreciate how restrictions across the health system are affecting service users. I acknowledge that the restrictions in maternity hospitals are particularly difficult for expectant mums and their partners. Indeed, a year and a half ago I was the partner of an expectant mum and the support that we were able to give one another, and especially, that I was able to give her was huge. Many of my friends and constituents have raised this issue and it is one that we would like resolved as quickly as possible.

It is our aim that the impact of Covid-19 on women and their families in maternity hospitals be kept to an absolute minimum. Unfortunately, with the prevalence of Covid-19 in our communities, it has been necessary to introduce restrictions in our maternity hospitals to protect not only women, babies and staff, but the maternity services as a whole. This has been achieved in part by the introduction of restrictions on persons attending in maternity hospitals and this, regrettably, has affected the access of partners to maternity wards, theatres, and appointments.

It is worth remembering that some of the most vulnerable members of our society are cared for in our maternity hospitals, including fragile infants at the very extremes of prematurity and the sickness of newborns with very complex needs. There are also many vulnerable mums with additional medical needs and everyone can agree that their safety and that of their babies must be a priority.

To date, our maternity hospitals have performed very well in that regard and have continued to protect the well-being of women, babies and staff while providing safe, quality, maternity care.

Throughout this pandemic, maternity sites have continued to review their restrictions on a weekly basis, with some undertaking reviews daily. We need to recognise that the challenges faced by our maternity hospitals vary considerably between hospitals and that significant variations in caseload, complexity and infrastructure exist throughout the system. That is why we cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach to restrictions and some local flexibility is required to provide for the different circumstances that may arise in different maternity units. Decisions on restrictions are, therefore, made, implemented and reviewed at hospital level.

The national women and infants health programme has advised the Department of Health that it has issued a communication to clinical leads in each maternity network requesting that the improving situation regarding community transmission and immunisation of front-line workers be taken into consideration when restrictions are being reviewed. The programme will continue to engage with the clinical leads to support a phased relaxation of restrictions and to provide advice on any area of particular challenge while continuing to advise that the overarching requirement is to protect the health of our pregnant population.I assure the Senator the decision to restrict attendance in maternity hospitals has not been taken lightly. Front-line staff and hospital management are acutely aware of the very important support provided by partners and the national women and infants health programme has assured the Department that maternity hospitals wish to facilitate this support as far as possible and that restrictions are being reviewed regularly with a view to phased relaxation, bearing in mind the overarching need to protect the health of our pregnant population.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I am disappointed with the response of the Minister of State. I completely accept and understand, as I am sure does every Member, the necessity to introduce restrictions in our maternity hospitals to protect women, babies and staff but we have now moved to a stage where pregnant women will be prioritised for vaccination and our healthcare staff have been vaccinated. Honestly, the damage being done to women through not having the support of their partners is incalculable. Earlier, I mentioned a lady who wrote to me about what she went through with a miscarriage last year. The other part of the story is that she is now pregnant again, thankfully, and has had a healthy pregnancy so far. She is absolutely petrified of having to go through all of this again. I honestly believe this should be a priority. The Minister of State's comment that we need to have local flexibility is understandable but the general rule should be that partners are allowed for these three key areas, with flexibility coming in where there is a problem.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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This does not come under my remit, although I am responding to the matter. I acknowledge the difficulties and anxieties that restrictions in our maternity services have placed on women and their partners over the period of Covid-19. Any deviation from normal practice is a cause of regret. I hope our maternity services have performed very well in this regard and have continued to provide a safe and quality maternity care during this very difficult time. However, it must be borne in mind that maternity hospitals and units introduced these measures to protect the well-being of women. The national women and infants health programme has issued a communication to the clinical leads in each maternity network requesting that restrictions be reviewed and I hope they will be. The Department has been assured that all maternity hospitals are reviewing their restrictions with a view to phased relaxation as soon as it is deemed safe to do so. I hope there is some positivity.

I welcome this development but the House should be aware that any phased relaxation on restrictions may be subject to change as the situation evolves, bearing in mind the overarching need to protect the health and well-being of our pregnant population. I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I and many Senators, Deputies and Ministers have friends and constituents, particularly women, who are anxious that they get support from their partners. This is not my area but I hope the matter will be resolved as quickly as possible.