I wish to join my colleagues in commending the Members who have so bravely recounted their own experiences of baby loss here tonight and at last year’s baby loss debate. As many have said, the loss of a baby is one that no parent should ever have to bear. I am fortunate not to have suffered such a loss, but as a children’s doctor I have, unfortunately, been the bearer of such bad news on too many occasions.
In my experience, the first reaction of a parent confronted with the tragic death of a baby is to ask, “Why? Why did this happen? Why my child? Why me?” In these agonising circumstances, answers as to why this situation has occurred can help to provide respite. The second reaction, one that is testament to the incredible empathy human beings have, even in the most difficult circumstances, is the desire to ensure that lessons are learnt from their personal tragedy so that no one else has to endure that same heartbreak. I am in awe of colleagues, such as those here this evening, who have been through such a traumatic experience and found the strength not just to share that experience, but to use it to campaign successfully for improvements in care and to highlight areas to improve so that others do not experience such suffering in the future. I commend the work of the all-party group and my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince), for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) for their work to develop the bereavement care pathway. I have worked in hospitals where there has been excellent bereavement care, with the bereavement suite that has been described, and in others where the care has been less well developed, and I have seen the importance of the national bereavement care pathway. I congratulate them on it.
Although he is no longer in his seat, I also congratulate my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake on his private Member’s Bill, which has developed child bereavement leave. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester has said, it will enable mothers to have an extra two weeks of maternity leave and fathers to have a doubling of their leave—some extra time to reflect and be at home with their family.
One recent improvement that the Government have made is the introduction of independent investigations by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, which will look at every case of stillbirth or life-changing injury. That will help to meet the needs of parents in respect of that first question—“Why did this happen?”—and to prevent it from happening again. When the lessons are disseminated throughout the health service, doctors and midwives will be able to learn from previous experience to ensure that problems do not occur in future. It will be important—I look to the Minister to respond on this—to ensure that health professionals can speak openly in investigations without fear of blame. A blame culture will deter people from speaking openly and prevent improvements to patient safety. I have spoken numerous times in the Chamber about patient safety, and I am hopeful that the national roll-out of investigations will help us to meet the NHS’s goal of becoming the safest healthcare system in the world in which to give birth.
One development in neonatal care that I have seen in my 17 years of practice is the increasing centralisation of neonatal care, with the smallest and sickest infants now transported to specialist centres. I have worked in these centres and, although they provide exceptional care, they are often many miles away from the hospital where the child was first admitted or where the family live. For example, if a baby’s family live in Sleaford and North Hykeham, their nearest tertiary centre is in Nottingham. If the centre in Nottingham is full, the family may be sent many hours away to Norwich, Sheffield or Leicester. For working families on low incomes, the need to visit their sick baby several hours away imposes significant travel costs. Some families go through intense financial difficulty to meet that need to travel, while others have the distress of being physically unable to travel to see their baby as often as they would wish because they do not have the money to get to the tertiary centres. I raised the very same issue in the debate last year and would be interested to hear an update from the Minister on any measures being taken to help struggling families, many of whom work, to meet the travel costs in such an extremely distressing situation.