The HSE has written to the State’s 19 maternity hospitals telling them it is time to lift restrictions on visiting partners.
HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry has told the hospitals that visitor restrictions are a "cause of distress to patients and their partners at a very important time in their lives".
Dr Henry said restrictions on partners attending anomaly scans and being present at births should “only happen if it is absolutely essential to safe operations of the maternity services”.
The letter has requested that maternity hospitals fill out a form stating that they are in compliance with new guidelines on visiting hospital settings which were released by the HSE on April 30th.
Those guidelines state that it is generally appropriate that partners should be facilitated to attend anomaly scans (18 to 22 weeks) and labour and birth.
They should also be allowed visit their new born child if that child is in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or a neonatal care unit.
“Patients should normally expect to bring a partner or other accompanying person to their 20 week scan and to other appointments if there is reason to anticipate that the visit is likely to involve communication of particular emotional significance,” the guidelines state.
Not every woman is offered a 20-week scan.
The guidelines further recommend that only partners who have tested positive for Covid-19, are exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 or are a close contact of those with the virus should not be allowed visit.
Dr Henry wrote that “we continue to see reports in the media from women and their partners reporting that partners have not had access in circumstances in which it appears that they could expect to have access if the national guidance was implemented.
“In that context I would be grateful if you could request that all HSE hospitals providing maternity services confirm that they are implementing the current national guidance.”
Dr Henry said there may be reasons why visits cannot be allowed if there is an outbreak of Covid-19 or other infectious disease, but such restrictions should only be done after a “documented risk assessment that is reviewed regularly”.
Dr Henry added: “The risk assessment may consider infrastructure, staffing levels, the current framework level and the potential adverse impact of restrictions on patients, infants and their families. Site or service specific restrictions on access as outlined above must be communicated clearly to patients.”
Some maternity hospitals have banned partners from turning up to pre-natal scans and in many cases from births because of the Covid-19 pandemic. One expectant father posted a video of himself waiting in a car park for seven hours while his wife gave birth in the hospital.
Speaking at Thursday’s HSE weekly briefing, Dr Henry said he wished to make it clear that bans on partners visiting maternity hospitals is not national policy.
“We are writing to hospitals telling them that this is national policy. Are you implementing it? If not, why not? It has been clear for some time for us that this is what the policy is,” he said.
“Thankfully we are out of that situation largely. Neo-natal and maternity units ar much safer places than there were in January.”
HSE chief executive Paul Reid said "restrictions should be lifted unless somebody reverts back and tells us different".
The restrictions on partners has been criticised widely. AIMS Ireland, which campaigns for improved maternity services, has been consistently critical of restrictions on partners visiting maternity hospitals saying it cannot be medically justified.
The Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) has said the exclusion of partners from maternity hospital appointments is negatively affecting pregnant women's mental health.
The negative impacts of antenatal appointment restrictions were greatest for mothers who had previously suffered miscarriages and perinatal loss, the psychologists’ group said.
The professional body, which represents around 3,500 psychologists, said restrictions on partners attending scans and appointments had been “particularly difficult” on families during the pandemic.
The group said women who had experienced trauma or perinatal loss during a previous pregnancy were “disproportionately” affected by the restrictions.