This is now the fifth year the House has marked Baby Loss Awareness Week—as with many things, covid-19 caused some delay, as Baby Loss Awareness Week took place a month ago—and I am pleased and grateful that we are here today. It is extremely encouraging and moving that right hon. and hon. Members have ensured that this important issue has been debated often in recent years, helping to deliver an unmistakable message outside this place about its importance in Parliament, the Department of Health and Social Care and the national health service. Most importantly, that sends a message to bereaved families, letting them know that there are people in this place who truly understand how it feels.
Please forgive me for telling my story today, in as much detail as I dare. It is important to me that my baby’s short story helps to shine a light on what is a really dark situation for many people. “I can see straightaway that something isn’t right”—those are the words that broke my heart and changed my life forever. It was 3 January 2019, and my husband and I were at the routine 20-week scan for our second baby. My first pregnancy had been healthy and straightforward and resulted in our fabulous daughter. At age 42, I had been slightly anxious about my 12-week scan, but happily all tests had come back clear. My midwife encouraged me to birth again at our midwife-led centre, and I was keen to stay healthy in order to do just that.
We had celebrated a low-key but cosy Christmas and new year with family and friends. I felt content and reassured by my kicking baby and wondered what the following year would bring. Three days later, we went for our 20-week scan and would receive the terrible news from the sonographer that our baby had an extremely severe form of spina bifida. I lay on the couch and grabbed my husband’s hand tightly. Tears stung my eyes—not unlike now. When I glanced at him, his eyes were watering, too. We did not dare believe what had just happened.
Just over an hour later, we were sitting in the office at our main hospital, the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro, with a wonderful consultant and an incredibly kind bereavement midwife. We were met at reception and taken to a small room and brought some tea. I just knew this was not going to end well, but I did not know what to expect. I was checked again, and any hope we had was extinguished by a slow and silent shake of the head. But my baby was still kicking. So started the most traumatic weekend of my life to date.
We had no idea what would happen next. Our world had started to swim and spiral away, and neither of us knew what questions we should ask.
I will try not to get emotional myself. I understand the hon. Lady’s grief—we all do. We understand how important it is for parents to come through this terrible time. We have had similar things in my own family, so I understand exactly how she feels. I was trying to give her a bit of time, and what do I do? I start to blubber as well. I apologise for that. I just want to say that I really feel her pain.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which has succeeded.
I must say that we were looked after with extreme kindness by everyone at the RCHT. Not a day goes by when I do not think of them and thank them silently. On that day, we were barely left alone. We were provided with lots of information and given lots of time to process. I want to emphasise that, because what comes next feels pretty brutal. However, the staff make it all as bearable as they can, but it is shocking when it happens, and I want to convey that.
We were talked through what I am going to call the process. Before we left that day, I had signed a form to consent to infanticide—the termination of our much-wanted baby’s life. This is a decision that the mother must make, as the baby still belongs to her body. I could have chosen not to do this, but at nearly 21 weeks gestation my baby had no rights of its own. To be born before dying, a midwife would stay with the baby until it passes away. I am told that this is much more traumatic for the baby.
The next day we returned and endured the procedure. I have never felt so helpless. I was voluntarily allowing somebody to inject a long needle through my skin, into my womb and into my baby’s heart, so that they could inject some potassium to end that little life. Our baby was very strong, and it took longer than it usually does. I hung on to my husband and let him be strong for me, not that he felt that he was. I felt my baby kicking until the very end.
Two days later we returned to the RCHT. It was a Sunday morning, and we had been told to go to the Daisy suite. That is where women birth if their baby is going to be stillborn. It means they do not have to interact with other pregnant women or newborns while labouring. However, when we got there, it was being used by another woman who was there with her dad. She had been brought in as an emergency the night before, and her baby had stopped moving at 38 weeks. I felt that she needed the space more than I did.
I was induced and endured an eight and a half hour labour, which was much longer and far more intense than with my first baby. Finally, I delivered. I had not planned to look at my baby. To be honest, I was scared of what I might see. The midwife said to me, “You have the most beautiful baby girl.” And there she was, a perfect, beautiful, sleeping girl. She was tiny. She looked just like her big sister. I held her, I kissed her and I told her how much she was loved, and then I let her go. We named her Lily Wren Mackrory—Lily for peace, Wren because she is our smallest little girl, Mackrory.
Baby loss is far more widespread than I ever realised before it happened to my family. Many people are bearing this grief, often silently. Pregnancy and childbirth have always been perilous for women. Even now, in 2020, with all our medical advances, there are so many babies we simply cannot save. Miscarriage, stillbirth and the death of a newborn are all too common. Thousands of parents experience pregnancy or baby loss every year. It is estimated that one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and 14 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every day in the UK.
I do not want to be completely self-indulgent during my speech today, but I do not know how else to relay how raw that feels for those parents and how important it is that we talk about it. I have one word to describe the grief I felt following the loss of Lily—primal. I just wanted to bring my baby home. I wanted her to be healthy. It dominated my entire being. I wanted to watch her kicking feet and to feel the grip of her tiny fingers on mine.
Weirdly, I gained an understanding about why some species, particularly penguins, steal each other’s babies when their own eggs do not make it. It is a physical ache down the arms and in the stomach. What had I got wrong? What had I eaten or not eaten that had made her so poorly? Was it because I was too old? Since I already had one healthy, amazing child, perhaps I had simply pushed my luck. Of course, none of that is true.
Having our then four-year-old meant that a daily routine had to continue, thank goodness. My husband and I were alarmed by the statistic we read that 50% of couples who experience baby loss end up splitting up. We were determined not to be one of them. We vowed to let each other grieve at our own individual pace and not to expect too much of each other. One would take the load when the other felt overwhelmed, angry or helpless. We allowed family and trusted friends to help us as a couple, as well as separately, but during the worst days I thought I would never recover. People do, of course, but they are changed. That was how 2019 began for me, and it ended with me coming into this place.
The experience I have just described is fairly shocking when it happens, but sadly it is not unusual. This year, Baby Loss Awareness Week focused on highlighting baby loss during the covid pandemic. From start to finish, I simply could not have got through that horrendous weekend without my husband at my side, yet we have been expecting women to do that since covid hit our shores earlier this year. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, I have had the privilege of listening to many experiences and testimonies and learning what baby loss charities and the APPG have achieved so far. Despite my position in this, I am still fairly new to the experience.
Last year, during Baby Loss Awareness Week, before I became a Member of Parliament, I attended a service in Truro with my husband as a member of the public and a bereaved parent. I looked at the book of remembrance, at Lily’s date, and there was her name in full. It was the first time I had seen it written anywhere, apart from in a small memorial that we had placed on my grandmother’s grave. There was another name there: a little boy named Isaac. I realised straightaway that he was the baby boy who had been born on the Daisy suite on the same day as Lily.
In August 2020, the APPG held a virtual meeting—my first as co-chair—focused on the impact of covid-19 on pregnancy and baby loss. We heard evidence from organisations that support women and partners who experience loss at any stage. The evidence was stark. Covid-19 has exacerbated existing challenges and has had a negative impact on the experience of women and their partners and families at the worst possible time of their lives. Hospital trusts that had traditionally been struggling in this area appear to be the most vulnerable.
I will summarise what the APPG found. Partners have been excluded from appointments and scans, and often have not even been able to join the consultation by video or speaker phone. That has led to women receiving bad news or making decisions alone. In a neonatal setting, mothers and partners had visiting rights severely restricted. Those factors all increased the sense of isolation experienced by bereaved women and their families. Thanks to a successful campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), many trusts have reversed the decision to prevent partners from being present at scans and births. However, many still cannot or will not.
Women have reported restrictions on the way that they can access health services relating to their pregnancy. They often find that accident and emergency is the only route available. Scans have been cancelled, and mothers with concerns about their baby’s movement have reported being sent away from hospitals. Some key staff, such as health visitors, have been redeployed during the pandemic, which means that women cannot access the services they need. After receiving bad news, information on options and choices has not been forthcoming. For example, women report a lack of information about pain, bleeding and what to do with pregnancy remains after experiencing a miscarriage.
In maternity and neonatal settings, a lack of time and available space has impacted on whether staff can provide opportunities for memory making after a stillbirth or a neonatal death. That is massively important for grief and recovery. In some cases, women chose not to access health services, taking the important “stay at home” message of the Government’s campaign to heart. In the early stages of the covid pandemic, in some hospital settings, personal protective equipment was a barrier to delivery of compassionate bereavement care, and staff struggled to communicate in the way they would prefer. Hospitals reported shortages of face-to-face interpreters to help communicate with women who do not speak English. After a stillbirth, neonatal death or sudden infant death, some families whose baby had a post-mortem had the results communicated by post or email, which is not appropriate.
Although some new ways of communicating began during lockdown, such as virtual antenatal appointments, they are not accessible to all and do not always provide the same reassurance as an in-person scan or consultation. I even heard the tragic story via one of our bereavement charities of a woman who had given birth to a stillborn baby, and because the mother had tested positive for covid, her baby was simply zipped in a body bag and taken away. I must add that that was at the height of the pandemic in April.
The APPG found that lockdown had exacerbated risk factors for some types of baby loss—particularly involving deprivation and domestic violence. After a loss, the isolation of lockdown contributed to negative impacts on women’s and partners’ mental health and their ability to access support from friends, family, psychological professionals and community outreach services.
In response, the APPG called on NHS England to initiate a minimum acceptable standard for involving partners when pregnancy or baby loss is anticipated or occurs, whether in relation to attendance at scans or appointments, or parental access to neonatal units. There is too much variation between hospitals at present, which must be addressed with national guidance. I know that that has already begun. I also ask for the swift reinstatement of the provision of choices for women facing pregnancy or baby loss in respect of the mental health impacts of covid-19 on those bereaved through pregnancy and baby loss, in order to plan services for that group in the future.
I thank the Department of Health and Social Care; health professionals; baby loss charities such as Sands, The Lullaby Trust, Aching Arms, and particularly Cradle in Cornwall and a lovely lady there named Emma Pearce—there are so many to mention; Members of this place, past and present; and, most of all, bereaved families for their co-operation on the work to date in this vitally important APPG. I hope that, while in post, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) and I can continue their important work and bring solace to families in their darkest time, as well as trying to prevent more losses in the first place. I look forward to working with colleagues, including the Minister, to achieve that.
I thank and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing this important debate, and also for speaking with such bravery and honesty. It is a real inspiration—she has done Lily proud.
Coronavirus has impacted every part of our lives, often in ways that we did not think or expect. We took things for granted—little things, such as holding the hands of loved ones who are in pain or upset, or even those across the political divide. When restrictions were put in place in hospitals for visitors, fathers, partners and support networks in relation to scans for expectant mums, I was not surprised to receive pleas from women in Luton who were saying that they really needed somebody there to support them through their scans and neonatal appointments.
That is especially important to people who have had difficult pregnancies or miscarriages or who have suffered baby loss in the past. Not every scan is one of joy, and the time before a scan can be an incredibly anxious, nervous one, full of dread. Holding someone’s hand during that time is incredibly important. That is why I am so pleased to say that, having worked closely on this issue, the fantastic team at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital was one of the first to enact the new guidance allowing visitors to come to scans with expectant mothers.
As we know, with coronavirus everything is always under review. I really hope that the Government continue to support trusts in enabling that to happen as long as is humanly possible, because it is important. It is not like the films on TV when someone sees two pink lines and then suddenly the film fast-forwards to the very large woman buying lots of baby clothes and then screaming for a couple of minutes, and out pops the baby. For many people, that is not the reality of pregnancy. It is not that simple. Miscarriage and baby loss are part of the pregnancy journey that are often just not talked about. Yet, a quarter of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. If we are to end the stigma, the silence and sometimes the shame, we need to be open and honest.
The first time I miscarried, I was at work. I knew that something was not right, so I booked myself a scan during lunch break. I was by myself then, and they told me that there was no heartbeat. To be honest, what happened next was a bit of a blur, but I still remember the emotional and physical pain as if it was yesterday. I will be perfectly honest: a miscarriage is not like a period. It is incredibly physically and emotionally painful. The second time, we were further along. I was not alone for that scan. It did not make the news any easier, but I cannot describe the difference it made to have my hand held, gently squeezing support to one another.
During these losses, and throughout the pregnancy of my wonderful rainbow baby—the term for a baby born after miscarriage or baby loss—my friends and family were there every step of the way, and held me close to get me through those dark times. But my fear is for all those women who no longer have that support. That is exactly why I urge the Government to hold out for as long as they can to ensure that visitors can come to the scans of expectant mums, and to tackle the cause of the doubling of stillbirths during this lockdown.
I want to pay tribute to the Miscarriage Association. Without its support, I know that myself and thousands of women would still have struggled, and struggled alone. Social media is often a cesspit; but I have to say, for any woman who has miscarried, or is pregnant following miscarriages or baby loss, the Miscarriage Association’s website and forums on Facebook are an oasis of comfort, information and understanding. During this time, I know that we cannot hold the hands of everyone we want to. There are women out there, associations, charities and hospitals doing their best to get us through, and I hope the Government listen to their concerns and work with them so that no woman endures baby loss alone and so that women are no longer an afterthought throughout this pandemic.
I have been here 23 years and I have never seen a Doorkeeper distributing tissues to Members during a debate—I thank him. I am sure this is going to be a harrowing debate. There is a limit of about seven and a half minutes on speeches so that everybody can tell us their story.
It is an honour to follow two such remarkable speeches. Nothing I say will come close to the extraordinary emotions that we have heard. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), with whom it is a great honour to co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss. When my hon. Friend talked about seeing Lily’s name in the registry of Truro cathedral, I think what we all thought was that is just the first of many important moments that Lily will be remembered—this is another of those moments. What is so striking about the courage shown by my hon. Friend, and by so many families, is that she chose to relive the agony that she went through over and over again, because she wants to stop other families going through that same pain. That represents extraordinary courage, and I think it is an incredibly good omen for her time in this place that she is prepared to do that.
It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), who has made an extraordinary contribution to the Health and Social Care Committee in the short time that we have been working together. She drew my attention to the issue of women having to cope with extreme emotional stress on their own during the maternity process. I thank her for that, along with all the other work she has done on the Committee on maternity issues. On Tuesday we heard from James Titcombe, one of the best known baby loss campaigners in the country, who, the Minister told me, lost his son Joshua exactly 12 years ago today. James gave an inspirational testimony. It is because of those many families up and down the country that we are having this debate today. I also thank the Minister, who I know will give a compassionate and supportive response. She totally gets patient safety and these issues, and will be doing everything she can to resolve them.
We all understand the importance of infection prevention and control in a pandemic. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), as a doctor herself, will understand that. The answer surely has to be an expansion of the testing facilities, which we know are in the process of being expanded. If we are able to test everyone in the city of Liverpool, it must be within our grasp to make it possible to test people who want to be with their partners in those crucial moments of a pregnancy.
I hope that today’s debate will shine a spotlight on the wider issues around baby loss. The uncomfortable truth for all of us is that in this country, according to the latest figures I have seen, we lose about 3.9 babies per 1,000 born in neonatal deaths—deaths within the first 28 days. In Sweden, the rate is about half that. That means that if we had Swedish safety levels in this country, about 1,000 more babies would live every year.
The Select Committee is doing a big inquiry into what lessons need to be learned. I will just talk about one particular lesson that has long been a concern of mine. We make it far too difficult for doctors, midwives and nurses to speak openly about any mistakes they may have made or may have seen, because still, in too many parts of the NHS, we have a blame culture. People are worried that they might lose their job, they might get disbarred or there might be negative consequences for others they work with. We heard on Tuesday that one reason why Sweden has managed to achieve a much lower neonatal death rate is that they have made it much easier for doctors, midwives and nurses to speak openly about things that may have gone wrong. They have managed to change a blame culture into a learning culture.
One thing I hope we will look at is whether it is appropriate under the law that the only way a family can get compensation in this country is if they can prove clinical negligence. That immediately creates antagonism between a family, who perhaps have a child born disabled and desperately need financial support for that child’s life, and the doctors, midwives and nurses responsible for that child’s birth, who also want to help the family with every fibre in their body, but worry that if they speak openly about what happened, they might end up with a successful claim of clinical negligence against them. I hope that is something we can address.
I want to finish by saying this. As we reflect on how to be more compassionate with people going through some of the extreme agonies that we have heard this afternoon, we should always remember that the best possible way to handle baby loss is to ensure that it never happens in the first place. Getting the culture right in our maternity units is the best way that we can save heartache for thousands of families. It is the best tribute to baby girls such as Lily and to baby boys such as Joshua Titcombe, and it is the best way that we can turn the wonderful intentions we are hearing in this debating Chamber into actions that will make a difference for the lives of many.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.
This is a very important debate on something that affects all our constituents in a very direct and personal way. Some 25% of all pregnancies in the United Kingdom end in miscarriage and 14 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every day in the United Kingdom. Each of us across this House, no matter what party we are from, no matter what region of the United Kingdom we are from, no matter what culture or class we are from, knows that we are here to be a voice for constituents and for those people who contact us.
I want to be a voice today for Donna. Donna emailed me this week and told me, “Ian, I want you to be in that debate today, and I want you to tell people about my story and I want you to insist that people understand just some of the pressures families and individuals and mums and women go under at these crucial times.” Donna and her husband had their second consecutive miscarriage in February of this year. In April, she found out that she was again pregnant.
Donna felt that she had to isolate, because obviously she had some health issues and she wanted to make sure that she was in as good a health position as possible for what was to be a hopeful, exciting time for her and her family. Because of covid, however, she was told that she could not have an early pregnancy reassurance scan. Those scans are critical not only in giving confidence and assurance to mum, but to check on the health of the unborn child.
Donna felt pain one day. She told her GP, and the pregnancy clinic then agreed to give her an early scan. Little did she know that she was going to see two heartbeats that day, because she was pregnant with twins, so it was very exciting. She had to attend that clinic on her own, and that was the only time she saw her unborn babies alive. She tells me that on the way home in the car, she could not contain her excitement to tell her husband, and he too was so excited. The two of them, in her own words, had “never been so happy in all of their lives.” Unfortunately, that was the only time she ever saw the heartbeats of her unborn children. It was a very stressful time thereafter. She had to go back after feeling more pain, and discovered a few weeks later that unfortunately both heartbeats had ceased and those babies were to be unborn.
Donna was given three options to expel this pregnancy: naturally, through medicine, or through surgery. Due to covid-19, the options narrowed, and she was told she would have to go for the natural expelling of the pregnancy. She had so looked forward to having these babies, but it was not to be the case. Two weeks later, she went to the hospital with the saved remains to have them tested. She tells me a week later, she got a phone call from the clinic to tell her that her “product”—an unfortunate term—was ready for collection, and that she should make arrangements to go to the mortuary. She did that. She arrived at the mortuary, and had to sign a release form as the mother, which was another pull to her heartstrings and emotions. The whole experience was beyond surreal, and made her feel very emotional.
Donna was referred to the recurrent pregnancy loss clinic. However, the waiting list is now nine months, as the consultant in Northern Ireland who deals with this unfortunately has to shield themselves. As of today, she is sitting in her eighth week of being pregnant again, and is waiting for her next scan. I think we can all understand just something of the emotion and pain that she is going through. On the one hand, the mixed feelings of increased excitement, and on the other hand, increased worry and stress. Covid-19 obviously puts pressures on the entirety of the health system, and we have heard over the last few weeks the problems relating to mental health, and the increase in mental health pressures.
None of us can put ourselves in the shoes of an individual unless we have actually been there ourselves. This is an opportunity to make sure these issues are voiced, that people hear about them, and that they start to understand that these needs are practical ones. We might see a woman walking down the street and we will not know the trauma, heartache or mental health pressures that she has gone through. We do not know what the other, related problems might be with her family or her partner. I hope this debate will serve as a very useful, powerful and positive platform and opportunity for our constituents to know that this House cares, that Parliament cares, that the Minister cares, and that the Department will try to do something about it by encouraging our health service to direct its resources towards vulnerable and needy constituents.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing this important debate. It is a privilege to follow so many esteemed speeches. I also want to place on the record my thanks to the Doorkeeper for bringing out tissues, because I definitely came very unprepared for this debate.
When parents first find out they are going to have a baby, it is usually a moment of immense happiness. They naturally think about what that baby may look like, what their smile may be, whether it is a boy or girl and the things they will achieve: maybe the sports they will play, the schools they might go to, or the weddings they might have. Unfortunately, not everyone can see those dreams come to fruition. Too often, baby loss occurs and those dreams, hopes and aspirations can be shattered suddenly, leaving behind grieving and traumatised parents. As we have heard, thousands of parents experience pregnancy or baby loss every year. Where I am from in the west midlands, it accounts for 12% of perinatal deaths and 14% of neonatal deaths. From the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, we see 7.46% of stillborn babies and 2.77% of neonatal deaths.
I want to talk about the Woodland House appeal at Birmingham Women’s Hospital and also the Lily Mae Foundation, an amazing charity set up to help deal with baby loss in my constituency. The issue has long struck a chord with me. Long before I was elected to this place, I served as president of the Greater Birmingham chambers of commerce, where the president has the privilege of choosing a charity. Had I not come to this place, my charity of choice as I was entering my second year was going to be the Woodland House appeal for Birmingham Women’s Hospital. I was invited to visit the hospital by the head of fundraising, Louise McCathie, who took me round and showed me the journey that parents undertake when they go through the journey of baby loss, from the clinical rooms all the way to the mortuary.
As I walked through the hospital, three things really stuck out. The first was the emotionless, clinical places where parents first find out really bad and harrowing news. I can only imagine the isolated and lonely feeling that both parents must feel as they receive that news. The second thing that struck me was the fact that grieving parents might have to walk in and out of the hospital with celebrating parents. Of course, I do not begrudge any parent celebrating the birth of a child, but it obviously accentuates the trauma as grieving parents see celebrating parents with balloons and toys and other children running around.
Then I made my way to the mortuary, where it was pretty daunting to see the cold, clinical corridors. Next to the mortuary was the cramped room where parents can say their final goodbyes. There was also a laundry, and it struck me that having a tailored bereavement suite was the compassionate thing to do, which is precisely what the Woodland House appeal is designed to do, as it looks to raise £3.5 million to make a tailored space away from the hustle and bustle of the main hospital where families can spend time together in a safe, secure and serene surrounding before they feel ready to face the world again. I certainly wish the Woodland House appeal the very best of luck. I found out today that it is almost at the £1 million mark.
The Lily Mae Foundation, based in my constituency, was set up after Lily Mae, the daughter of founders Ryan and Amy, sadly passed away. I visited the foundation a couple of months ago, when I was allowed to, and was blown away by how the founders had achieved so much and made such a significant impact. Frankly, it makes me proud to be their Member of Parliament. I certainly hope that I can support them for many years to come. They do various things. They have regularly provided 10 hospitals in the west midlands and Warwickshire area with 500 to 600 memory boxes a year, which allow bereaved parents and their families to build precious memories for their babies. There are potentially siblings, so they provide sibling support packs to deal with the trauma that they might have.
Amy also undertakes one-to-one baby loss support. Currently, she is providing support to 47 clients with regular one-to-one sessions. It is a sad fact that the number of people who need those sessions far exceeds what Amy is able to currently supply, and there is a waiting list of clients. Of course, there is also much more complicated grief. I should mention her husband Ryan, who, when I went to visit them, was a week away from jumping out of a plane for their 10Ten10 campaign—it has been 10 years since Lily Mae passed away. Despite covid scuppering their plans, Ryan went ahead and did it, so I commend them for their passion and hard work, and I thank them for all that they do. I might even join them for a skydive one day.
Finally, I want to make two further points, because we are here to see what we can do to progress things. I want to put on the record my desire that hospitals do not place restrictions on partners during this really difficult period, because preventing visits to mothers who might be going through the most harrowing experience that they will ever face is a callous thing to do. Allowing them to at least have their partner there to support them through the trauma can only be a good thing. It should not be beyond hospitals to allow that. Again, I make a plea to ensure that we have sufficient bereavement suites, so that parents can deal with their loss in an appropriate manner.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) on securing such an important debate, on her moving contribution and on her strength and courage in sharing her story about her loss of baby Lily.
This year will be remembered as a difficult year for so many people, but particularly for those who have lost loved ones—especially a much-longed-for baby. I rise to speak today because my difficult year in relation to baby loss was 2003, which coincided with the SARS outbreak. Stopping in Singapore for a couple of days in February 2003, on our way to introduce our first-born to her New Zealand grandparents, my husband, our baby daughter and I became very ill with a high temperature and a continuous cough. Only a few days later, our baby was coughing up blood and we were straight into A&E, where she was treated for pneumonia for several days. We were not counted in any official statistics, and we were not tested. It could have been any other type of virus that was prevalent at the time, but it was an illness that knocked us for six. It is the most ill I have ever been in my life. I was so ill that I was not well enough to care for my baby. I went on to miscarry in June, September and December of that year.
Although my personal experience is anecdotal, and correlation is not causation, the timing of my experience got me wondering—as we are discussing the effects of long covid and any viral illness—whether a lingering heightened immune response has any bearing on an increased incidence of miscarriages. I would be interested to know of any scientific research, either historical or under way now, that links this issue with repeat miscarriages.
I know that my year of grief was a fundamental tipping point in my life and caused me to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew, believed, cherished and held dear. Being an immigrant to this country, I understand a little about isolation: I have not had time to build extensive networks, and I do not have the deep roots that many people who have grown up here have. I did have my National Childbirth Trust group, and I will never forget how blessed I was that I was busy hosting our regular gathering when I started contracting at 14 weeks, two weeks after we had announced to everybody that we were pregnant again. One friend scooped up my daughter and took her home to look after her, and the other took me to the local doctor. She was with me when my waters broke. Then she took me to A&E and stayed with me through a difficult labour and delivery. I was not prepared for many things, including my milk coming in afterwards—or that, years later, I would have flashbacks.
I asked for a test to be done on that particular miscarriage, because it was further along than the other two. Unfortunately, I received a note from the consultant a couple of weeks later to say that they had not done the test and that the foetus had been taken to be incinerated. As hon. Members have said, it leaves people left wondering what they have done wrong. What could have been done differently? Not having answers is probably one of the most difficult things. I can only imagine how difficult it is for families who have had to endure this situation through lockdown conditions. We need to ensure that support is in place for such families.
By the time our second child arrived, I had been pregnant, almost continually, for 18 months. I have spoken openly about suffering from both perinatal and post-natal depression. The effects of baby loss are profound and long-lasting. The passage of time has softened my grief, and my mother always said you can’t put an old head on young shoulders, but if I can use today’s important debate to send a message to women who are coping with baby loss during this time of extra concern and difficulty with covid, I would say this: be kind to yourself, and be patient. Do not be afraid to ask for help from your frontline healthcare providers, and get any support that you need with mental health.
Taking the opportunity to tell our stories, as we are doing today, is a wonderful thing that women can do for each other. It lets others know that they are not alone, especially at this time, when we are more concerned about isolation and loneliness than ever before.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), but I am going to ask the Member speaking for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), to come in at this point, because she has to get on to a special flight. I apologise for not having told the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam in advance.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I apologise to anybody in the Chamber whom I may have overlooked, but I do have to get on my flight at Heathrow. I do apologise.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for her excellent opening to the debate and for sharing her experiences. Those of us who have suffered baby loss or stillbirth have a space in our lives that stays with us every single day. We do not get over it. We just somehow learn to build our life around that space, in that shadow—it never goes away.
This annual debate is very special to me, because I suffered in 2009 a stillbirth at full term, in which I too almost died, and that stillbirth followed a miscarriage in 2008, after five years of fertility treatment. As is the case for so many parents, perhaps the hardest aspect of coping with the loss for my husband and me—we are not unique in this regard—is the knowledge that our loss was due to glaring mistakes in my care. I am grateful to be able to have a voice in this debate today—a voice not just for baby Kenneth, whom I lost, but for all the lost babies and their grief-stricken parents, who will never be quite the same after such a profound loss.
This year, the context of our baby loss debate is that it takes place in the shadow of covid-19. It is not yet known what risk covid poses to pregnant women, although the points made by the hon. Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) were certainly worth listening to in weighing that up. It has been reported that there was a rise in stillbirths between April and June this year, at the peak of the pandemic. There were about 40 stillbirths after labour began, compared with 24 in the same period last year, according to the patient safety body, so that is something to consider. It may be, as we have heard, because women delay seeking care because they are concerned about covid. If that is the case, we need to understand that expectant mums clearly need reassurance and to feel secure in the knowledge that the NHS, even as it deals with covid, is still there for them.
Those who have suffered the loss of a child during the covid period report that the new restrictions in our hospital environments, such as the need for staff to wear protective equipment, can present a barrier to delivering the kind of care that bereavement requires. One thing that I always mention in these yearly debates about baby loss is the terrible, isolating grief that such a loss brings. With the best will in the world, people often do not know what to say to you, because the loss of a baby before, during or shortly after birth is like no other loss. In the normal course of events, when we suffer a loss, whether of a husband, father, mother or brother, there is a life that has been lived and there are memories that people can talk about and take comfort from. They can talk about what the person was like and how they lived their life and so on. Those recollections can help people to bring comfort as they share the bonds of grief. But for those families who have suffered a stillbirth or a baby loss, there are no such shared memories. There was no opportunity to make those memories. All there is, is a deep sense of being robbed of a life—a life filled with potential that will never be realised.
During covid, the isolation of grief that always accompanies the unnatural event of burying your child is all the more stark. You cannot have the comfort of close family members. You cannot have people rallying round, as they would wish to, to distract you from your stupor of grief and your sense of bewilderment at the loss of the baby you have been waiting for for nine months and for whom you had prepared, perhaps even for longer than nine months. That rallying round is simply not permitted.
The most heartbreaking thing that a parent will ever have to do is bury their own child, but even the funeral comes with limitations during covid. The numbers of people who can attend are limited, so many people who would wish to attend might not be able to do so. Parents are denied the service that they might wish to have and the flowers, the hymns and the cards that they might wish to have. There are restrictions even on who can carry the coffin. These awful, grotesque choices and decisions that no one ever wants to have to make are magnified by their absence during covid-19.
Post baby loss, when the terrible news has been communicated to the wider family, when bereaved parents leave the hospital and return home and when the funeral has taken place, many bereaved parents seek the support of counselling from baby loss charities. I pay tribute to the marvellous work that those charities do, but they tell us that as they try to support parents and families through the trauma of baby loss, measures they need to put in place, such as social distancing, have had a major impact on access to care and support for bereaved parents and have also complicated the grief and responses to pregnancy and baby loss. The Lullaby Trust has pointed out that social distancing may exacerbate grief and isolation. I think that is something we can all understand. As we all struggle with this ongoing health pandemic, as it challenges us all in different ways, how much more are those parents who have lost their child going to struggle?
In this year’s baby loss awareness reflections, as we talk about the loneliness of grief, which is very particular when we are talking about the death of a baby, the context of covid-19 and the specific isolation it brings with it makes dealing with the awful life-changing event of losing a baby all the more horrific. I hope we can all consider how that can be addressed, to help those we represent who are going through this horror as we grapple with the challenges of covid-19.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I would just like to say a huge thank you to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) and to every Member who has spoken about their experience today. It is really important that we are having this debate on the effect of covid on services.
This debate is very difficult for me. I had not planned to talk about my experience today, because the experience of many of my constituents and the stories from up and down the country show that lessons desperately need to be learned and more support is needed for how we care for people through the covid crisis. However, after hearing the contributions from other hon. Members, I feel that it is only fair that I share my story.
My thoughts go out to all those families who are facing bereavement and baby loss and miscarriage at this time. I want to focus, particularly, on partners being able to attend appointments, emergency and otherwise, and on mental health and redeployment of key staff. We need to recognise that this is not just a short-term challenge and we could be seeing many more months of disruption as a result of covid-19.
As we know, as many as one in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage and 14 stillbirths happen every day. I first raised the issues of maternity services back in June, because I heard concerns from my constituents about them. Little did I know that I would experience a miscarriage in August and would have to go through some of the issues that my constituents had raised with me—going to A&E and my partner having to wait in the car park; getting confused and muddled about my dates; being unable to have a hug or someone to hold my hand or support me on hearing the news that I was having a miscarriage.
It was a very difficult situation and one that I want no one else to have to go through. No one should have to hear that news on their own.
We would all like to express our thanks to my hon. Friend for her bravery in sharing her personal experience, especially as it is so recent and clearly so raw, and also because it is an experience that her constituents have written about. You are doing a fantastic job representing them here today.
Thank you. I can’t see because my glasses have steamed up because of my tears.
Receiving bad news alone is incredibly traumatic and challenging. Having to then go and repeat that news to your partner in a car park is another level of difficult, at a point when you are struggling to process the information. It is impossible to take in everything that has been raised or to answer any of your partner’s questions when you get into the car. No one should be put in that position, but too many people have been.
While I welcome the Government’s change of advice and guidance on allowing partners to attend scans and appointments, it is currently not enough to improve access. I urge the Minister to do more and not assume that the job is done on this issue. Unfortunately, when I talk to my local services about my own experience and that of others, they say that they are still unable to operate in a way that is safe to allow partners. I know partners have been forced to wait outside, not knowing what is happening on the other side of those walls, unable to attend and support their loved ones, including those who have already experienced the loss of a baby. They have been unable to discuss options and many have been left alone for long periods after receiving devastating news, as staff are unable to comfort them, other than to offer a tissue.
My constituent has started a petition campaigning for access to neonatal and specialist units, to ensure that all parents with a baby are able to visit their child if they are receiving extra care. It is clear that that depends on postcodes. Simple steps, such as testing both parents to allow them to visit when their child has to stay in hospital and receive treatment, could easily fix that situation. I call for more medium-term answers to be provided, and an increase in investment and space for more covid-secure provision, whether on a regional footprint or in the community within every trust. It should not be down to postcode. Everyone going through this should have the right to be treated with compassion and dignity.
That compassion should extend to providing even more support, in terms of bereavement counselling, at this time. The support that parents or siblings would usually provide is also very difficult. I have not been able to hug my mum since August and it is very hard. We know that space for memory making has also been squeezed. I urge that such spaces be protected, as they are key to the grieving and healing process.
I want to focus on the redeployment of staff in these areas. I pay tribute to all the NHS and local authority staff who are working incredibly hard, under extremely difficult circumstances. However, I question the decision to redeploy health visitors and midwives, who play a key role in helping to detect issues. The redeployment of such staff does not accept the reality that pregnancy, and complications in pregnancy, will continue. They are not elective services and will not stop during a pandemic.
We have seen caseloads massively jump up, in some cases to hundreds more than usual, as staff are left in services and are unable to give their normal professional standards and time to each family. Harrowing reports were covered by BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” earlier in the year on the experience of mothers and the workforce. That was one of the biggest issues raised. I hope the Minister will ensure that the situation is not repeated in the current spike or future spikes, and will be able to make the case to the Department that these are vital key services, for which there is no pause or stop button.
Finally, I hope we can all agree that this issue needs more action, and that support for our constituents must be prioritised. We cannot face going back to a situation with partners waiting in car parks and we need to fix the postcode lottery on that.
I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for applying for the debate, and everyone who has made a significant contribution. They have all been personal and heartfelt. I have spoken numerous times on this issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. One issue that this debate helps to address is the impact on the expectant father, as well as the mother, which is sometimes forgotten. I know the impact it has from my own experience 18 years ago. Thankfully, men are now more willing to speak about these issues, which is a good thing, but we must dwell on ensuring that the services that are provided are all encompassing and address the needs of men, as well as the most important needs—those of the mother of the unborn child.
I thank my hon. Friend for intervening. I have made it my business to speak in every debate on this issue. I have looked at some recent facts. In 2018, each day in the UK there were 2,060 babies born alive, 515 babies were miscarried, 144 babies were born pre-term and eight babies were stillborn. The reason I stand here today is to pay tribute to the thousands of heartbroken mothers and fathers.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, that emptiness cannot be explained unless it is experienced. I have not personally experienced it myself in my own family, but my mother did. I remember very well that my mother had five miscarriages. That was in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a totally different time. When someone had a miscarriage, people did not talk about it. They would say, “I’m sorry to hear of your loss, but you can always try again.” Two days later, they would be back at work. My sister had three miscarriages and one wee boy who is disabled. That loss is real for her. My private secretary, Naomi, who writes all my speeches and prepares my business for me—a very busy wee girl, by the way—had two miscarriages. I lived through that experience with her, not personally, but as an employer who understood what that heartache and pain was like.
Since the last debate on this issue, so many people contacted me—not because of me, because I am just nobody—to say, “Thank you for speaking up for us,” including people whose partner had carried their baby to full term knowing that baby was neither going to live or breathe beyond two hours. The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth told the story in her introduction. That is a real story for some of my constituents. That is why I am here today.
I have two asks of the Minister, if I may. The Minister knows I am very fond of her. I look forward to her response, because I know she has a compassionate heart and understands what all hon. Members have said on behalf of their constituents and themselves.
More testing must be available on the NHS for those who lose two babies in a row rather than three, as is the case currently. I am very close to a young lady who lost two wee babies in a row. She went to her appointment at the Ulster Hospital—my local hospital in Northern Ireland—early pregnancy unit to confirm that all of the baby had come away. The midwife—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) referred to the midwives—compassionately advised her and her husband to look at private options when they talked about their despair. It was terrible that they had to go elsewhere to get that help, but they paid for the private consultation and private tests, and found that something as simple as taking an aspirin daily could possibly address the blood clotting issue that had caused the loss of her little loved ones. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we traumatise women by making them go through a third loss before they can get the help that they need. That is my No. 1 request to the Minister and my Government.
I sincerely urge the Minister to take this back to Government and press the case for at least rudimentary tests to be carried out. I have been contacted by a nurse in my constituency begging me to address the lack of support under pregnancy during the coronavirus. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam and others spoke of that. I want to read from her email:
“It was a terrifying, lonely experience made worse by the fact that when I attended the Ulster hospital on Monday morning to have the assessment and scan to confirm if I was indeed miscarrying, I had to do so alone while my husband waited in the car due to the policy of only admitting the patient to the appointment”.
My heart aches for that separation, of which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam and others spoke. It is a real trauma for those involved, including the nurse and the midwives, and those who have to advise because of the special times we live in.
I understand the difficult times, but the fact is that a woman needs the support of her partner and her partner must be allowed to give that support. The Prime Minister’s reply—he has been quite good with his replies—said that fast and efficient tests will be made available, but we want to see that in place right now. We need to allow support partners to have tests immediately to allow them to attend appointments with their expecting loved ones. Again, I look to the Minister to assure me and others that such people will be on the priority list for a fast test.
Miscarriage is so devastating to families. The effects are felt for years. I remember one of the first cases I heard as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland of a constituent who lost her baby in the ’60s. She told me that she was never allowed to talk about it and mourn. Sixty years later, she still thinks about that. It does not matter how long ago it was; it is still real every day in life.
We must do better for these families, and offer hope, testing and support in taking steps to allow their loved one to be with them every step of the journey. I simply do not want to have to read again of the devastation that my constituent described:
“As a result of this policy my husband learnt of the loss of our baby in the car park of the Ulster hospital, hardly a suitable or private place for a sensitive and emotional conversation. His role as parent was completely undermined and dismissed by this policy”.
To conclude, the journey is that of a family, and the family must be allowed to provide whatever support and love they can give in the face of a devastating loss. To those who have lost a baby I say, “The loss of your baby is important. Your pain is real and you have the right to grieve the loss of the future that you had planned together. It is my honest belief as a Christian and a man of faith that your wee one is safe in the arms of Jesus until you can be with them again.”
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Eagle. It is an honour and a privilege to respond on behalf of the Opposition to this profoundly moving and powerful debate, which I thank the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing. Bravery comes in all forms, and today she has shown the very best of us and done Lily proud. Lily’s honour and name will be timeless in the records of the discussions that we have had today. The hon. Member is incredible.
This is the fifth year running in which we have had such a debate during Baby Loss Awareness Week. It is becoming a very welcome tradition and long may it continue, although obviously we have heard today of the importance of ensuring that we prevent as many deaths as possible. I pay tribute to every Member who has had the courage and conviction to share their experiences on an issue as devastating as baby loss. To live through it is one thing, but to speak about it in a bid to help others is another altogether. After what we have seen today, I have never been more proud to be in this place and to stand among all Members present, regardless of party, political persuasion or geography. It is an honour to hear their stories first hand.
The fact that we cannot provide comfort to one another when talking about this, though we are compelled to, illustrates how hard it must for people going through it not to be able to have the comfort of the ones they love the most, and for some parents to have to hear the very worst news that they will ever receive in a car park or down a phone. Such debates hopefully go some way towards breaking down the stigma that sadly persists. I am sure that having the bravery to speak out on this will bring a great deal of comfort to many who have been affected by baby loss.
I wish to reflect on a few of the compelling contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) spoke so movingly about the experience of multiple loss and was a powerful advocate for the importance of having a loved one there. She was able to draw a stark comparison between the experience of not having someone there and having someone there. We must pay attention to that powerful contribution. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) is no longer present, but baby Ken will be immortalised in this place through the story that she shared. I do not know how she delivered that speech, to be honest. Most people I know would not have even been able to speak those words.
I am sure that all of us send our love and best wishes to Donna, who has a powerful advocate in the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). I thank him for bringing her story and lived experience to this place—he has done her proud. When my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) spoke, I was lost for words. That she lived through the very worst of experiences in August, in the very worst of ways and in the most difficult of circumstances and yet is here now, not even three months later, telling her story in a bid to help others represents a strength rarely found in this world. I thank her so much for all the good she is doing and the voice she is for all those who cannot have one at this time. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) showed, through his emotion, the power of the need to have something to cling on to. He has his faith. However, as he rightly explained, people also need a loved one to be there. I turn to speech of the hon. Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson)—wow. It is so important that she raised the issue of what an infection at this time could do to a woman’s body and to the ability to carry a pregnancy. Given how the hon. Member for Guildford—I want to say her name, because this feels like the sort of debate where we should—went through a horrific experience not even in her own home or own environment while having a young child and went on to experience three subsequent losses, I cannot imagine what it took to talk about that today.
The hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) is no longer in his place, but it was great to hear about his incredible work to raise awareness. Jumping out of a plane is testing at the best of times. The Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), spoke powerfully, as always.
As we have heard, losing a baby is one of the most harrowing experiences a person can go through. It is painful, it is devastating, and it is ultimately cruel. It feels like the cruellest of circumstances. We know that, unfortunately, it is all too common and can happen to anyone at any time.
I am often the doctor in A&E who meets the mum when she is coming in. We have heard powerful contributions about stigma and guilt. For me, the take-home is always the overpowering sense from a mother that there is something she could have done. I want to put on the record, and say to those who may be watching, that she has done nothing wrong; she has done everything right. We must do all that we can to fight against the stigma and shame that so many women feel, going through pages and pages of internet sites, wondering, “Did I eat something wrong? Did I lie the wrong way? Should I have gone for that jog?” She did nothing wrong; she did everything right. Her baby was loved.
It is heartbreaking to have conversations like that without a partner, a parent or a best friend present. The first step supporting those affected is drawing attention to this tragic event. I am so proud of the fantastic work of the Baby Loss Awareness Alliance, a collection of more than 90 charities who work relentlessly to ensure that this is on the agenda during Baby Loss Awareness Week and beyond.
In 2020, it would be remiss not to return our attention to the effects of covid-19 when we discuss baby loss. This year of social isolation, solitude and sacrifice has made such tragic occurrences even more tragic. The coronavirus has stripped the humanity out of grieving, with a mother unable to get a hug from her mum and bad news delivered in personal protective equipment while unable to hug a grieving mother or father. We are unable to do what is so instinctively natural to us: to share our grief with those who love us as we lose someone we love.
During the pandemic, there has been reduced access to face-to-face appointments. When appointments do take place in person, partners have been excluded, leaving women to receive the worst news or make the most difficult decisions alone. That has been deeply isolating not only for mothers but for fathers as well. They have that helpless feeling of waiting on the other end of the phone, pacing the room, waiting for it to ring, and then wondering whether they are allowed to show grief, because they are not carrying the baby but they feel the loss equally. They try to be strong for their partner while a part of them dies inside. Virtual appointments just do not carry the same compassion and assurance as seeing someone in person, and as we have heard it can be especially difficult for parents who have already suffered a previous loss. There are challenges in hospital settings, too.
We cannot overestimate the impact that this has on expectant parents. I do not doubt that the Minister will talk about the work that the Government are doing to try to make this more bearable for parents who undergo such a loss. To support bereaved families, it is absolutely crucial that they receive immediate care. There is a direct correlation between when the person going through grief receives the package of mental health support and how long the need for intervention and mental health support continues. The sooner they get it, the better it is for them. Access to bereavement support varies across the country at the best of times, but the redeployment of many NHS staff in the wake of the pandemic has resulted in even greater challenges in accessing that vital support.
This is the most difficult of journeys. Very often, we cannot change the outcome, but we can influence the journey and make it more bearable. The NHS is here for parents going through this. Maternity and neonatal care must not be curtailed during the second wave of covid-19.
I thank all hon. Members for bravely sharing their experiences. I am sorry that I have spoken for so long; I did not even finish what I had planned to say, but sometimes we have to go with the moment. I could not be more proud of the contributions and to call all hon. Members here colleagues.
I definitely will. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Eagle. I thank the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin- Khan) for doing the round-up and highlighting everybody’s speeches. I thank all hon. Members for being here today, and I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) for securing this debate. Her speech was a difficult and incredibly brave thing to do.
Normally this debate would be in the main Chamber—I responded to it last year—and were it not for the social distancing in this Chamber, other colleagues would have been here today giving their support, and telling their own difficult stories or sharing their experiences, which is so important in raising the issue. Let us hope that next year the debate will be in the main Chamber. I am disappointed that the debate taking place in the Chamber right now is not taking place here and that we are not in the Chamber. It has almost downplayed the importance of this subject. I want to put it on the record that this debate deserves its place in the main Chamber next year.
I want to pick up on a few of the important points that have been made before I get to the substance of explaining what the NHS is doing. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) raised the issue of the increased number of stillbirths from 24 to 40, and I want to use that to piggyback on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson). This is a new virus. We do not know its full pathology or impact or what we will learn going forward, but the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran is absolutely right that the number of stillbirths has gone up. The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch has launched a thematic review into the reasons behind the change, and we hope it will report within the next few months. We want to unpack that—was it to do with the virus, or was it to do with circumstances?—and to know fully what those details were. She was quite right that the numbers have gone up, but we need to know why. It may not be the virus at all, but we absolutely have to know what it was, and that work is already under way. I just wanted to reassure colleagues on that.
I am delighted that a regular at these debates has just joined the Public Gallery—my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) has been instrumental in the APPG and in bringing forward this debate on a yearly basis. I am delighted that she has joined us, because it would not be quite the same if she was not here, and I thank her for that.
Before I move on to the substance, I will pick up the point raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake). I thank her for sharing her story, because it was so raw and so new, and her experience was—there is no other way to put it—a dreadful one. However, as the Minister, I have to tread the line of balance, and I would like to say that, yes, on 8 September, along with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, we agreed new guidance that would be sent out to trusts to allow, where possible, partners—and not just partners, but parents or friends—to go in for scans with sonographers and to be there for the mother, so that she has somebody with her to support her throughout all those appointments. Trusts that can do that are doing it wherever possible.
Of course, the answer is the testing, and a lateral flow test will be available for anybody who wants one in Liverpool from tomorrow. That is the key to the future. Those tests give the results in 15 minutes, so they are a bit like a pregnancy test, and the specificity is, I think, 99.9%, so we can be sure and confident in maternity units that parents and partners can go in and that it is a covid-secure place.
As we know, and as the hon. Member for Tooting can inform us all, when young babies are born, their immune systems are very compromised—almost non-existent, and there has been a balance in ensuring that the environments in maternity units are covid-safe. I just give one example of a birthing mother who had two partners accompany her for the birth, both of whom had tested positive for coronavirus within the previous few days.
There is that balance for the NHS staff and midwives as well, because NHS staff have gone down with covid themselves, and we need to keep our midwife workforce working as healthily as possible. Each trust, in conjunction with NHS staff, decides how to apply the guidance and how to make its areas safe and secure for pregnant mothers to go to.
I also mention the case of one sonographer, who does the scans, who told me that her room has no windows because of the glare on the screen. It is 6 feet by 4 feet, and it has a table, the ultrasound equipment, and room for one chair and the bed. There is no ventilation whatever; it is almost an extended cupboard on the inside of the hospital. There is no way that that room could be covid-secure for her for the amount of time it takes to do a scan. Again, we need to keep our sonographers working.
There is a balance. I know that some trusts have changed where the scans are done and that the NHS is trying its very best to ensure that situations such as the one the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam went through —it was just dreadful, and it was so brave of her to recount it so soon—are minimised as far as possible, but having the lateral flow test is the key, so that we know that people going in and out of the hospital are negative for coronavirus. That is the key to the future and to ending this particularly difficult problem.
I thank the charity Sands and the Baby Loss Awareness Alliance for making Baby Loss Awareness Week a success once again. This year, it focused on the feelings of isolation that many women, fathers, partners and other family and friends experience after pregnancy and baby loss. Those feelings of isolation have sadly been amplified by the covid-19 pandemic and the measures that have had to be put in place to keep healthcare workers, patients and the general public safe.
To mark the week, I met with the charities Sands, Bliss and Tommy’s, and hosted the first meeting of my new maternity inequalities oversight forum, a small group of clinical and academic experts and service users that will regularly discuss women and babies from black, Asian and other minority and ethnic backgrounds and those from lower socioeconomic communities. Every stillbirth or baby loss is a tragedy, and it is only right that we support, and remain absolutely committed to supporting, parents through any difficult situations that they may experience at that difficult time.
The reason I established the inequalities oversight forum is that women from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds suffer inequalities during birth. We need to find out the reasons why. We need to find out why black women are five times more likely to have a stillbirth or to die during childbirth. We need to get to the bottom of the reasons and to find out what we can put in place to ensure that, by addressing those issues, we reduce the number of stillbirths.
I was deeply affected by the heartbreaking photographs shared by Chrissy Teigen last month when she lost her son Jack around halfway through her pregnancy. It was incredibly brave, moving the debate out into the public arena again. Closer to home, one of our colleagues and friends, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), tragically lost his twin boys, Rafe and Teddy, shortly after they were born. I commend the bravery and strength of all those individuals who have come forward, as everyone in the Chamber has today, to open up the conversation about baby loss. For far too long it has carried a stigma, as we have heard, and has been treated as a taboo subject.
I would like to mention the death of Mary Agyapong, a pregnant nurse who died with covid after her baby was delivered at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital, where she worked. That deeply affected me, as the hospital serves my constituents. It is a tragic case, and our deepest sympathies remain with Mary Agyapong’s family.
It is one of the Government’s highest priorities to reduce the number of stillbirths and other adverse maternity outcomes, and to make sure that grieving families and friends have access to the support that they need.
On the point about the loss of Mary Agyapong, I would like to share my sadness, as she was a constituent of mine. I hope the Government will continue to support her family throughout this difficult period. As to the point about black, Asian and minority ethnic women suffering more stillbirths and miscarriages throughout pregnancy, that has been heightened throughout covid. What is being done to look into the situation, and how can this be improved for the future?
I apologise: I had not realised that Mary Agyapong was one of the hon. Lady’s constituents.
The situation that the hon. Lady describes is why we established the inequalities forum with a group of clinical experts, including National Maternity Voices, Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent and others. It was for exactly that reason: to try to find out why this is happening, to look at some of the myths around the reasons and to get down to the clinical reasons and to the changes we can implement to stop this. MBRRACE-UK, hon. Members, National Maternity Voices and Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, as well as a number of other people known and recognised as leaders in this field, are trying to drill down into the reasons.
In a way, it is covid, and what has happened, that has made us drill down to focus on that. I hope that as we move a little further forward—we have had our second meeting—I will be able to report some of the findings back to the House. I particularly encourage the hon. Lady to read the MBRRACE-UK report, which focused on the issue. It contains some interesting reading and findings. That report also stimulated the need for the group to look at these issues.
Oh, gosh, I am sorry. I will just mention James Titcombe. It is the 12th anniversary of the death of his baby, Joshua. James has absolutely been an advocate of patient safety, and his work has influenced it. However, I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth time to respond.
I will make it brief. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for being here this afternoon and for the stories that they shared, and particularly the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake)—that was incredibly brave; it is so raw still. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), who has shown such kindness to me over the past few weeks and spoken to me privately—we have shared our stories. I think this is a tribute to how this Parliament can work, and I hope that we will be in the Chamber this time next year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on people experiencing baby loss.