How women’s health is bearing the brunt of the Covid pandemic

“After 24 hours of labour, I was transferred to an operating theatre for a potential caesarean,” says Natalie, an occupational therapist from London. “They were able to deliver my baby by forceps, but 15 minutes later my partner was asked to leave. I’d lost a lot of blood and was totally out of it. The next thing I knew my baby was transferred to intensive care and I had no idea why. I was put in a maternity ward, all the curtains were drawn around the beds and you weren’t supposed to mix with anyone. The midwives were in full PPE. They checked my blood pressure, but didn’t talk to me.

“I spent the first night after the most shocking experience of my life totally alone, with no baby and no partner. Nobody should have to go through that.”

When Natalie finally left the hospital, five days after giving birth, she had to do so alone. “Two of my friends’ partners were allowed to stay with them after birth. The inconsistency of the rules just felt so unfair.”

Mothers are now allowed to have birth partners with them throughout labour as long as they do not show any symptoms of coronavirus, but Dr Jan Smith, clinical lead at the charity Make Birth Better and a chartered psychologist working in birth trauma, says NHS trusts are interpreting the guidance in different ways. Recent data showed only 23 per cent of trusts were allowing partners to attend throughout labour – and women are still having to face miscarriages and terminations alone.

“We know that birth trauma can be passed on intergenerationally, and maybe if their partners had been present these women might have been able to make sense of it,” says Dr Smith. “We need to balance the risk of Covid infection against that of the long term mental health of the mother and whole family. It’s about valuing women in society.”

Reductions in maternity services are proving to have tragic consequences for women. In July, Asma Khalil, an obstetrician at St George’s, University of London, and her colleagues reported a nearly fourfold increase in the incidence of stillbirths at the trust between February and mid-June.

Kate Mulley at the stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands is also hearing anecdotal reports of an increase in mid-term miscarriages from hospitals: “Some women told us they reported worries about changes in foetal movement and bleeding, but were told not to go to the hospital because of coronavirus.”

Meanwhile, the ongoing restrictions and stress are continuing to have a detrimental effect on women’s health and wellbeing in general. Last week a study by the University of Glasgow found that rates of binge drinking rose among women from 8 per cent to 14 per cent during the peak of lockdown.

And women are also taking less physical exercise, with new figures from Sport England showing that only a quarter of women are remaining regularly active after six months of lockdown restrictions.

“Women were already taking less exercise than men, and now the problem has got worse,” says Chrissie Wellington, global head of health and wellbeing at Park Run. “I’m concerned about what happens as we go into winter and there are far fewer opportunities to exercise outdoors.”

As Covid’s second wave begins and further lockdowns loom, many experts fear that the consequences for women’s health could continue long into the future.

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