Visiting restrictions to maternity hospitals should be risk assessed to show how they are protecting women and staff, maternity advocates have said.
The call comes as a number of hospitals eased some restrictions in the last few days, but others have made no change. This only deepens the inequity of access, advocates say, as they demanded the science behind these changes be made public.
Chair of AIMS Ireland Dr Kyrisa Lynch said: “It is baffling women can do some things in some hospitals but not in others. We are looking for risk assessment audits, we think it is inappropriate that some women have certain opportunities and others do not.
“And we are looking for the entire labour experience to be accompanied.”
She said it is not appropriate that the partners of a woman giving birth are viewed as visitors.
Women have told AIMS of being alone for up to six hours having been induced, with their partners waiting outside in the car. She said a back rub or a smile are essential during labour-pains.
Dr Lynch said it is difficult to understand why some hospitals ban visitors, others restrict visiting to certain hours, which means all partners come at the same time, while others allow more freedom.
In Cork, advocate, Linda Kelly gave birth during the first lockdown.
She said: “We know everything carries risk, but I find it astounding that for this essential service, where all the staff are vaccinated, that there hasn’t been a strategic plan put in place.”
Cork University Maternity Hospital now has a Visitor Scheduling App, and Ms Kelly asked why this is not mandated for all maternity hospitals.
“There have been so many promises from senior people in government, but when it came to lifting restrictions after this lockdown, there was nothing for maternity services,” she said.
Speaking at an HSE briefing this week, chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said it is still too early to restore all visiting. He said the HSE wants to see “a safe easing” of restrictions.
Information shared by the maternity hospitals this week shows varying restrictions in place around the country.
The South/SouthWest hospital group includes Cork University Maternity hospital and maternity units at Kerry University Hospital, South Tipperary General Hospital, and University Hospital Waterford.
Restrictions on anomaly scans were lifted on March 29 in all. Partners can attend from when the woman is in established labour for the birth or caesarean-section delivery and can stay “for some time” after birth.
One parent can visit the Neonatal Intensive Care at a time and hours are unrestricted.
At University Hospital Maternity Limerick “partners and support persons” can visit on the labour ward only.
At the Coombe hospital in Dublin, Covid-19 restrictions are renewed daily. A “designated partner” can attend during birth. Women can have visitors on the antenatal, postnatal and gynaecology wards between 2pm and 4pm daily.
At Dublin's Rotunda “a nominated companion” can attend the anomaly scan. One named person can attend when the woman is in the delivery suite or theatre. Women on postnatal, prenatal and gynae wards can have “one named companion” visit between 5pm and 7pm Monday to Friday or 2pm to 7pm on weekends and Bank Holidays.
Women can feed their babies anytime in the NICU when they are also a patient. If they have been discharged, visiting is between 11am and 7pm daily.
At the National Maternity Hospital a “partner or support person” can attend the anomaly scan since December 9. They can also attend a caesarean section. Visiting post-birth is open to a partner or nominated person for up to two consecutive hours of their own choosing.
Visiting restrictions at the NICU have now been lifted.
At Portlaoise Hospital, in the Dublin Midlands Hospital Group, visiting during the anomaly scan was restored last Tuesday. Partners can attend the birth until the mother is moved to the postnatal ward. No other visiting is permitted.
The Ireland East hospital group includes maternity units at Midland Regional Hospital Mullingar, St Luke's General Hospital, Kilkenny and Wexford General Hospital.
A spokeswoman said: “As healthcare workers complete their vaccination schedule this will be taken into consideration in determining local measures.”
In these hospitals, birth partners may only attend the labour ward when their partner is in active labour, and in theatre for planned caesarean sections.
The midwifery-led maternity units in Cavan General Hospital and Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Drogheda are under the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland Hospital Group.
Here “a birth partner” is allowed attend the anomaly scans and come onto the labour ward. They can visit the Midwifery Led Unit and post-natal ward.
The SAOLTA hospital group oversees maternity units at Portiuncula hospital, Galway University Hospital, Sligo and Mayo general hospitals, and Letterkenny University Hospital.
In Letterkenny visiting is allowed to the Special Care Baby Unit. Birth partners can attend a woman in labour, and for a caesarean “done under regional anaesthesia”.
In Mayo a partner must leave immediately after the birth. And if a woman is discharged while her baby is still in the Special Care Baby Unit, she can visit once a day.
In addition to the birth at Galway hospital, partners can visit the antenatal and postnatal wards for 30 minutes from 7pm to 7.30pm. Fathers can only visit the NICU for 15 minutes.
In Sligo “birthing partners” can stay for a time after the birth. But they cannot visit the NICU, unless the mother is in intensive care in which case the partner can visit for up to 15 minutes.
Their guidelines also say partners are encouraged to phone for updates, and that staff will take photographs for them.
At Portiuncula partners are “invited to attend” the anomaly scan, and “are welcome to visit” the Special Care Baby Unit for 15 minutes, one person at a time. Partners can visit for one hour between 6pm and 8pm but exceptions are considered in sensitive cases.