Reducing Baby Loss — [James Gray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:05 am on 20th July 2021.

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Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:05 am, 20th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend Ian Byrne, who spoke wholeheartedly on behalf of his constituents. I thank Cherilyn Mackrory for her courage and compassion, and for her campaigning throughout. She is an inspiration to so many women out there.

The last time we debated this subject, although it was in Westminster Hall, as opposed to here, we had a very emotional debate on baby loss. It was Parliament at its best. MPs from across the House brought their life experiences—and, yes, painful experiences—to benefit the people we seek to serve. That is Parliament at its best.

This has been a painful year for many women and families. We have heard from constituents who were forced to receive bad news apart, were unable to grieve losses together or were even unable to hug a friend or a loved one they saw in pain. Those of us who have experienced baby loss and miscarriages know the pain and anxiety that appointments and scans can cause. I remember breaking down into bits at just the first appointment. It was just a question-and-answer session with a midwife during my second pregnancy, but it can be a horribly anxiety-provoking, triggering experience to go back to a place you have received bad news in the past, let alone doing that during a pandemic. Many women this year have been robbed of the joys of pregnancy.

Although I have had two pregnancies that ended in miscarriage, I now speak from the fortunate position of having a beautiful rainbow baby, which is the term used for a baby following miscarriage or baby loss. That is a very different experience from before. I do not know how others have the strength to speak out while they are still on that journey or without their rainbow. I know I would struggle; you are truly inspirational.

It is because of that shared experience that I am especially proud of the teams at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital, who recognise the pain and stress this has caused. I thank the team at Luton and Dunstable for working with me and families to accommodate visitors at scans and appointments as soon as possible. I appreciate that they are under huge stress and pressure during the pandemic, but the difference they make to families is priceless. Thank you to the sonographers, the early pregnancy units, the admin staff, the midwives, the GPs and the consultants who have helped women through this difficult year. You have gone above and beyond—thank you.

To fast-forward to just a few weeks ago, I met some of the brilliant midwife team at the L and D to talk about the changes and the challenges of the future. One is always staffing. They are doing wonders, but to limit the burnout that this pandemic has caused, we need to ensure that we not only retain midwives but recruit adequate numbers. NHS staff have experienced increased stress and pressure, which would test even the toughest of heroes. Hospitals could delay some procedures and surgeries, but as one midwife told me, people do not stop having babies.

We know how important continuity of care is to the health of both mother and baby, so it would be great to get an update from the Minister on where we are on the target to improve continuity of care for women, especially for black and Asian mothers, for whom the maternal health outcomes have been particularly poor. We have heard that stillbirths have doubled for black women, and Asian women are more than 1.6 times as likely to experience stillbirth.

I hope the Minister takes a serious look at the proposals in the report of the Health and Social Care Committee, on which I sit. The Committee heard evidence from a range of parents, grieving families and health experts. I hope the Minister takes a serious look at the recommendations and takes steps to implement them. One of the crucial recommendations is about having adequate levels of staffing. How many midwife vacancies are currently unfilled? How many do we need to train and retain in position to meet future challenges and targets on providing continuity of care to all mothers?

To focus quickly on the pandemic, we know the devastating impact that covid can have on pregnant women. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists released shocking statistics relating to pregnant women and covid. One in 10 pregnant women admitted to hospital with covid symptoms needed intensive care. More than 100 pregnant women have been admitted to hospital with covid-19 in the past two weeks. No pregnant women who have received both doses of the vaccination have been hospitalised since vaccination programmes began. Those are startling statistics.

The Minister joined me to meet my constituent Ernest Boateng who lost his wife Mary more than a year ago, shortly after she contracted covid-19 and gave birth. Ernest has shown amazing strength after losing Mary to look after his two beautiful children. His campaign to see pregnant women prioritised for vaccination is inspirational and one I wholeheartedly support, as do the facts. Yet, throughout this year, and despite protestations from Ernest and MPs such as my hon. Friend Stella Creasy and others, the Government have failed to prioritise pregnant women for vaccination, relying on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommendations. I feel the figures now show that that should change. I ask the Minister to commit that, should boosters be needed in future, pregnant women will be some of the first to receive them, and that alongside that there will be an education and information programme targeted at pregnant women.

Before we get to that stage, there is the issue about which my hon. Friend Olivia Blake has spoken so passionately from the heart: the ludicrously cruel requirement that women should suffer three losses before support is given specifically for miscarriage and baby loss. Let that sink in. In 2021, we are asking women to go through such a physical, emotional and painful loss three times before they qualify for extra tests, or even early pregnancy support in future pregnancies. How can that be right?

I was lucky to receive extra help and access to some of those tests, but only because a consultant was kind enough to count the losses that I had in the number of babies, rather than pregnancies. I am currently working with a constituent in a similar situation. I am pleased to say that she is now accessing the support she needs, but that should be the norm; it should not be extraordinary. Why are we making women and families go through such pain before they even get a simple blood test? It is cruel beyond belief.

To summarise my points: first, we should make pregnant women a priority for covid-19 vaccines and ensure that they are prioritised for any subsequent boosters. Secondly, we need to recruit, retain and reward midwives to ensure that we have adequate numbers, while being honest about the scale of the challenge ahead of us. That leads on to point three about continuity of care. We need to see continuity of care, prioritising those who are most in need, particularly black mothers, who are four times more likely to die during childbirth.

We must implement the recommendations in the Health and Social Care Committee report. Many of my colleagues on the Committee would have joined today’s debate, but that Committee is sitting at the same time. I pass on their apologies, knowing their strength of feeling and that we are united on those recommendations. Finally, we must end the requirement of three losses before intervention and support is given to women. Pregnancy can be a painful journey for far too many women. Let us listen to women, end that cruel requirement and support women through their joys and their losses, and so improve the statistics on baby loss and miscarriage for good.