Being admitted to hospital is always unsettling and I know how important the support of friends and family can be in those difficult moments. Sadly, when the NHS was under incredible strain due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to hospitals for visitors had to be restricted but I am clear that visitor access must be restored in full as soon as it is safe for this to happen.
We have heard some heart-breaking stories over the past year of families being kept apart through some of the most upsetting moments in life. Patients have passed away without the comfort of a loved one by their side, mothers have lost their babies without their birth-partner there to support them and parents have been forced to wait in the car park when their children need urgent care. Only last week, the BBC reported on nineteen-month-old Carson Josephson whose father had to wait in the car park last year while his partner heard the news that Carson had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.
Carson’s case is sadly not unique - I have supported many local residents who have had to go to hospital alone without the people they love standing by their side. This has been most shocking in those cases where birth-partners were not permitted to attend maternity scans and mothers have had to give birth alone.
I recently met Dominique Hawthorne at a surgery and she has kindly agreed to let me tell her story. Dominique had a difficult birth and the care she received is still being looked into by her NHS Hospital Trust. Due to complications in her care she did not receive the pain relief that she had requested, and her birth progressed much more quickly than expected. From our conversations it is clear that the fact that her husband was initially refused entry to hospital made her experience so much more worrying. Sadly, this is a theme we have seen across so many different parts of the NHS during the pandemic and I think we can all agree that this needs to change.
The experiences of patients attending hospital alone were sadly unavoidable at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, but I have been consistently pushing for more access wherever possible. In September last year, I joined the ‘But Not Maternity’ campaign, to allow birth-partners to access maternity scans – ensuring mothers have the emotional support they need.
I also followed this up with our local NHS hospital trusts to ensure that the CEOs were doing everything they could to allow this locally. I am pleased that these policies have now been updated and birth partners can attend all stages of maternity care at both Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, and Dartford and Gravesham NHS Hospital Trusts.
I have also been campaigning for more parental access to neo-natal intensive care units in my role as a member of the Health and Social Care Select Committee. In a committee hearing on 24th November 2020, I specifically asked the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to look into this. Parents must be able to stay with their babies when they need intensive care and I was pleased that the national guidance was changed to allow this.
We must now go further. With the huge success in the COVID-19 vaccination programme, we need to keep pushing to deliver a full return to hospital visits across the NHS, throughout the UK. Over 38 million people have now been vaccinated and, despite concerns around the Indian variant, we are still seeing very low case rate data with hospitalisations under control.
That is why I took the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister to restore normal hospital visiting hours across the country at Prime Minister’s Questions last week. He has promised to update the guidance as soon as possible and I will continue to make the case for a full return to normal visiting hours. This is so important for everyone who has to access hospital care and I will continue to fight for a patient’s right to the support of the people they love.