Covid-19: Maternity and Parental Leave

Sarah Owen Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)
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Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for initiating this debate here today and by declaring an interest: I had a baby just before lockdown. At the beginning of February, I gave birth to a beautiful little girl. I thank all the new parents who signed the petition and put it on the agenda here in Parliament today.

Throughout this pandemic, we have talked about either very abstract or very specific things such as whether people should go to Barnard Castle. What people really want us to discuss is what matters to them, the real-life issues, such as “Can I see my loved ones in a week’s time? Will I be able to spend Eid or Christmas with my family? Can I celebrate my friend’s wedding? Can I plan my own wedding?”––probably not right now––“Can I be with my partner when they give birth?”. I am glad that we have a chance to talk about something that has a real-life impact on people’s lives today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said, for many people, including myself, maternity stopped pretty much as covid started. Seven weeks after our baby was born, my partner, who is a teacher, was able to work from home, so I was able to start work, and the need was great, as many MPs saw a huge rise in casework and massive need.

Some of the people who took the time to write to their MPs were pregnant women who were terrified at the prospect of having to give birth alone or to have scans and maternity appointments alone or in very strange environments. It is hard for people, particularly those who have had difficult pregnancies, miscarriages or problems with their health before. It is almost a cliché to say that this crisis has laid bare many underlying problems that have existed for far too long in this country. We know that, even before the pandemic, over 3,000 health visitors had been cut in the past five years alone. It is clear that social distancing––not being able to see each other face to face–– makes it really hard for new mums to get the support they need. We know that this impacts the child but it also impacts mothers, especially. The expert work that health visitors do on such limited resource helps narrow some of the inequalities that we have talked about. We know that seven in 10 new mums hide or underplay any struggles they are facing. Can the Minister tell us what the Government’s plans are to restore the vital health visitors we have lost over the last few years and to help babies and parents to catch up on support that they have missed during the pandemic? That is absolutely vital.

When we talk about the very first stages in a child’s life, we look to children’s centres and nursery schools. All the support mechanisms have taken a massive hit because of covid, but they have stepped up. Will the Minister readdress the current situation in nursery schools, which have not been reimbursed for any of their covid costs, because that is an absolute disgrace? We know about the confusion and muddle with Government guidance but I am pleased that trusts have been enabled to allow partners to come in for maternity scans, in particular. I know that my own trust, which covers Luton and Dunstable hospital, has done that. What conversations has the Minister had with trusts? Two weeks ago, I got a written answer that said that he had had none, which is deeply concerning because trusts need to be enabled to do this.