Plea to improve maternity services across London in wake of pandemic

London Assembly health committee investigation concludes NHS review needed into impact of Covid on maternity services, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

City Hall and (inset) Krupesh Hirani AM
City Hall and (inset) Krupesh Hirani AM

Sadiq Khan has been urged to help drive up maternal care standards in London, as City Hall politicians said new mothers were subjected to a “postcode lottery” of care during the pandemic.

A new report from the London Assembly’s health committee calls on the mayor to advocate for the NHS in London to carry out a review to learn lessons from the Covid crisis.

An investigation by the committee examined the impact of the pandemic on care, staffing shortages, and the inequalities that exist across the system.

It found that different trusts took different approaches to enforcing Covid restrictions, and that maternal care units had difficulty retaining staff as the pandemic went on.

Committee chair Krupesh Hirani said: “I became a parent in the pandemic and saw first-hand that it had a significant impact on how maternity services were delivered in London.

“Services were put back to a minimum level, some appointments were conducted remotely, wider support services were reduced, and, perhaps most notably, restrictions were put on birth partners attending scans and appointments.

“We recognise that this was a challenging time for the NHS and restrictions were put in place to keep people safe, but our investigation shows that lessons need to be learnt from the pandemic about how to improve maternity care in London.

“Through our survey we heard about supportive and caring midwifery teams at London hospitals, but we were also told about difficult experiences while restrictions were in place – in some cases with long-lasting consequences on mental and physical health.”

Krupesh, a Labour member who represents Brent and Harrow on the assembly, added: “The mayor has a role to play in pushing for change in maternal health outcomes across our city and we urge him to take on our recommendations and advocate on behalf of those using these services in our city.”

Responding, a spokesman for Khan said: “The mayor meets regularly with London’s NHS leaders to champion and challenge them to provide high quality services for all Londoners, including maternal health services.

“There is no escaping the pressures that they are facing as a result of many years of under-funding from the government, and the mayor continues to call on ministers to provide the funding that is required for our NHS and social care services.”

The spokesman said the mayor “looks forward to considering the London Assembly’s report in full and will respond in due course”.

A spokeswoman for the NHS in London meanwhile acknowledged that “more needs to be done to ensure everyone receives high-quality care”.

She said: “Improving maternity services continues to be a priority and we are determined to listen and act on feedback.”

As examples of recent progress made, she said the organisation has taken on 190 new midwives across London, along with twelve obstetricians and is creating several new posts to support wellbeing, as well as supporting the development of new maternity mental health services.

One mother shares her story

Felicity Forsyth, pictured with her daughter Leomi and partner Wilf (credit Felicity Forsyth)
Felicity Forsyth, pictured with her daughter Leomi and partner Wilf (credit Felicity Forsyth)

Felicity Forsyth was living with her partner Wilf in East London when she gave birth to their daughter Leomi, in January 2021.

“My daughter had difficulty breathing and the midwife could tell during labour that they would need to call paramedics,” said Felicity, who had chosen to have a home-birth.

Her daughter was taken to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where she received treatment, and Felciity went to the maternity ward – where she would go on to spend 48 hours alone in a private room.

During that time, the new mother tested positive for Covid, despite not showing any symptoms of the virus, and was told she could not visit the NICU to see her baby.

“I would request pain relief and didn’t get it for hours afterwards,” she said.

“I didn’t receive meals that I was supposed to get and just had very little contact with anyone else. I still hadn’t touched or held my daughter at that point.”

After two days had passed, Felicity decided to go home without her baby.

“It was a really hard decision, because I felt like I was leaving her, but they also told me I wouldn’t be able to see her – and I was just alone in a room during that time and could really feel my mental health deteriorating,” she said.

“I was having panic attacks – and I’d never had a baby before, I didn’t know what to expect.”

Felicity said that while she was “very grateful” for the treatment her daughter received from the hospital, she felt “excluded” from decisions about her baby’s care and was given “conflicting information” about how long she would be kept in the unit for.

“It really felt like once I tested positive for Covid, I completely abdicated any rights and she was just taken away from me,” she said.

After four days of being at home and still not reunited with her child, the couple decided to contact their local MP.

“We were told [by the hospital] that she’d tested negative for Covid, and would normally be discharged home – but because we were still in the two-week isolation period, still with no symptoms, she would need to remain in the hospital for another nine days.

“She was no longer receiving treatment at the hospital – they were just holding our baby there, who we still hadn’t met.”

After contacting their MP, the couple were told their child could join them at home – but the new mother said the experience had lingering effects on her mental health.

“I was diagnosed with PTSD about a year after she was born,” said Felicity.

“I don’t really remember the first six months of her life very well. I had really bad insomnia and flashbacks, as well as anxiety and depression.

“I was afraid that she would be taken away from me while we were out in public places – and it was traumatising for my partner as well.

“You just want to be the parents that you want to be, to give your child the best that you can, and you’re just starting off on the back foot from the beginning.”

Felicity said she hoped the London Assembly’s report would result in more thought being given to maternal mental health, while making decisions about the health of newborn children.

“I’m very thankful and grateful for all of the people that did provide the care. It just felt like the restrictions coming from the top were not taking account of people’s humanity, and the lived experience of people.”

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