Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1120/32014
Covid and pregnancy
- No to workplace discrimination
- Fight for safety and a fully funded NHS
Corinthia Ward, North Birmingham Socialist Party
Expecting a baby should be an exciting time for parents. However, for many the past year of the Covid pandemic has dampened what should have been a joyous occasion.
Missing the important support of family and friends and not being able to meet other mothers in local groups or classes are just the more obvious sacrifices mothers have had to make in the course of the pandemic. These alone are enough to cause emotional strain on pregnant women - especially if it's a complicated or significant pregnancy.
Then you come to scans, hospital appointments and birth. One of the issues around pregnancy during Covid which made the headlines was how many partners were excluded from these, with the mother having to attend them alone.
Various petitions calling for partners to be allowed in with mothers have popped up, gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures. Stories have been shared by women who had to attend scans alone, where they sadly found they had lost their baby, while their partner waited in the hospital car park to find out the news.
In Zoom mother meeting groups, women have made it clear that they can see through the double standards and hypocrisy of the government. In between the lockdowns, a couple could go to the shops or sit and have a coffee, but afterwards the women would have to attend an appointment solo.
It was obvious that while the NHS midwifery staff were trying to take Covid seriously, the government was pushing 'eat out to help out' and kept schools open, risking lives.
In December 2020, there was a glimmer of hope that things might change. As a way to fob off responsibility, the government gave new guidance to NHS trusts to allow partners into all scans and appointments. But many trusts across the country have not implemented this due to the new strain and the dramatic rise in cases. Many couples have ended up having to fork out at least £60 for private scans, just to be able to have the experience they needed.
Being pregnant and working during Covid has also brought more complications and stress. Once a woman is 28 weeks pregnant she is classed as at-risk due to a weakened immune system, and under government guidelines she should self-isolate. Under such circumstances, if an employer is unable to make reasonable adjustments so that the woman can work safely from home, they should suspend her on full pay until she starts her maternity leave.
However, women make up a large number of key workers, particularly in health and social care, where home working is harder to arrange. Investigations by the TUC show that, since the Covid-19 crisis began, one in four women and new mums have experienced discrimination or unfair treatment at work, including being singled out for redundancy or furlough.
This is backed by the many stories being shared on mother internet forums. These expose how employers have pressured women to drop their hours, go on sick pay, use holiday pay or start their maternity leave early. Some have even been put on furlough at 80% of their wages rather than their full entitlement of maternity pay.
Sadly, maternity discrimination in the workplace is not an isolated event during the pandemic. The 2016 Equality and Human Rights Commission report found that four in ten employers agreed that pregnancy in the workplace puts 'an unnecessary cost burden' on the workplace, and that one in four employers describe enhanced protection for new mums as 'unreasonable'.
The trade unions need to be central in the struggle to protect pregnant women in the workplace. The response of National Education Union members on school safety at the beginning of the year is just a taste of what can be achieved when workers are mobilised.
But it is not just workplace conditions and pay which have affected pregnant women. Both before and during Covid, concerns have also been raised about how the staffing crisis in the NHS and privatisation are putting at risk the safety of pregnant women and newborn babies.
In 2019, the Royal College of Midwives reported that there was a shortage of 2,500 midwives in England. The shortage on NHS maternity units has doubled since the start of the coronavirus outbreak - one in five midwifery posts are now unfilled.
The recently published Ockenden report into the deaths and serious injuries of mothers and babies at the maternity units in Shropshire and Telford Hospital NHS Trust revealed a serious lack of transparency and accountability.
Fully fund our NHS
As part of the fight for women's health, we need to demand an end to privatisation and a fully funded NHS under the democratic control of workers and service users. To reverse the staffing crisis, training for midwives must be free, with a living grant, and all NHS staff should have an immediate pay rise of 15%.
And these demands should be linked to the need to build a new mass workers' party which fights in the interest of all workers, including for the services that are needed to ensure that pregnancy and birth are safe, both physically and mentally.
In The Socialist 10 February 2021:
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