Women giving birth at Bristol hospitals have felt more isolated than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, a survey suggests.
The National Childbirth Trust said the removal of support from partners or family members as a result of Covid-19 restrictions caused extreme anxiety and fear for expectant mothers.
The Care Quality Commission polled 23,000 women aged 16 and over across England who gave birth in February 2021 on their experience of maternity services – including 230 at North Bristol NHS Trust and 153 at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust.
Patients were asked a range of questions and gave a score between 0 – indicating a very negative experience – and 10, representing the best possible result.
When asked if their partner or someone else was able to stay with them as much as they wanted, mothers gave North Bristol NHS Trust an average score of 1.8 out of 10 and University Hospitals Bristol and Weston Trust and 2.2 out of 10.
These scores were down from down from 7 and 8.5 per respective Trust in 2019 – the last time the survey was held – and the lowest figure since it began in 2015.
Across England as a whole, a score of 3.5 was awarded for the same question, compared to 7.5 two years earlier.
Just 34% of women said their partner was able to be with them as much as they wished – down significantly from 74% two years earlier, and the lowest proportion on record.
However, the survey also found that new mothers at North Bristol NHS Trust felt they had been supported well before and during their pregnancy.
Participants gave an average score of 8.6 for the level of help given by the Trust’s midwifery team during their pregnancy and an average score of 8.4 when it came to advice given about mental health changes that might be experienced after birth.
University Hospitals Bristol and Weston Trust also received high average scores regarding enough time to ask questions during antenatal check ups (8.7) and positive experiences with skin to skin contact with newborns after birth (9.6).
‘We’re sorry for the unavoidable impact Covid restrictions had’
A North Bristol NHS Trust spokesperson said: “We value the feedback provided through the maternity survey and were pleased to see that most women who participated in the survey told us they had a positive experience when they gave birth with us.
“It was great to see scores above the national average in some key areas reflecting the care given by our staff, such as treating women with respect and dignity.
“This survey was sent to women who gave birth in February 2021 when Covid restrictions were in place - we’re sorry for the unavoidable impact they had as we tried to keep everybody safe during a difficult time.”
Visiting restrictions ‘not a decision taken lightly’
Deirdre Fowler, Chief Nurse and Midwife at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust, said:“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic our priority has been the safety of our patients and staff.
“When we have needed to take the decision to restrict visiting, this hasn’t been done lightly, and we know how difficult this is for our patients and their loved ones.
“Each hospital is different in how its wards and waiting areas are configured and consequently visiting arrangements have to adapt accordingly. We continue to keep visiting guidance under careful review, in line with the national advice from the Chief Midwifery Officer for England to ensure everyone's safety.
“The wellbeing of pregnant women lies at the heart of our decision making and we understand that the arrangements which have been in place at times during the pandemic may have been upsetting for those who have been affected.
“Our dedicated maternity services team are on hand to give additional support to women and partners whenever it is needed, and we have offered flexibility around partners accompanying women for any special circumstances.
“We have also been committed to helping our patients keep in contact with their loved ones in other ways, including through the use of phone and video calls.
“We take on board the feedback from the National Maternity Survey and are sharing this with our maternity services staff to ensure we learn and improve.
“If anyone due to give birth at our hospitals has any questions about their stay with us, we ask that they speak with their midwife who will be happy to discuss their individual circumstances.”
Country in ‘desperate need’ of more midwives
The Royal College of Midwives praised the hard work of midwives under “immense pressure”, but said severe staff shortages meant one in five women were not offered a choice of where to have their baby.
Birte Harlev-lam, executive director midwife at the RCM, welcomed the Government’s commitment to recruit midwives but warned England desperately needs thousands more.
She added: “If the shortage is not urgently addressed and prioritised, our maternity services will continue to struggle to support women.
“More midwives mean women will get the care, time and support they truly deserve.”