Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has been accused of undermining the HSE leadership in its attempts to have all maternity hospitals lift restrictions on visiting partners.
Labour Senator Annie Hoey made the claim after Mr Donnelly supported the right of individual hospitals to decide not to lift restrictions if they did not believe it safe.
Ms Hoey called on Mr Donnelly to “consider offering his leadership in this area, rather than seeking to undermine the work of the HSE”.
The Minister on Thursday defended decisions at local level by individual hospitals.
“We would love as consistent an approach as possible and as open a national approach as possible,” he said in the Dáil.
“However, it is not being applied uniformly as some maternity hospitals have made a call that they don’t believe it’s safe for them and I support that and support their local right to make those decisions.”
HSE clinical director Dr Colm Henry has written to all 19 maternity facilities telling that visitor restrictions are “cause of distress to patients and their partners at a very important time in their lives”.
The health service’s chief executive Paul Reid also said “conditions are right” to lift restrictions.
Ms Hoey said the HSE announcements varied with what was actually happening because “a nominated support partner can attend the 20-week anomaly scan, but the 12-week booking is not included.
“What is also not covered in the announcement is antenatal appointments and unscheduled care or pregnancy loss. This is not good enough.”
Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers described the ongoing restriction as "barbaric, cruel and unnecessary" and that 14 months into the pandemic "they still have not found a solution".
Ms Chambers said “a partner is not a luxury at the birth of a baby. They are there for the physical and mental support of the mum, and they are also present for the birth of their child.”
Referring to the report last week of the Psychological Society of Ireland that this is directly impacting negatively on the mental health of women and increasing anxiety among partners, she said they “are sitting in parking lots waiting for that phone call so they can run up the stairs and hope to make it to the birthing suite on time.
“This is what is happening every hour of every day in hospitals. I went through this myself last year and I can attest to how traumatic and awful the situation is – to be in a position where your partner is frogmarched out of the hospital and not allowed back in and one is heading into the birthing suite wondering if they will make it on time. Some people have not.”
She said that it feels like women are not being listened to. “Once again, we are ignoring the voices of women in the health service.
“It is not that we are not used to this, it has happened before on many issues, but it is 2021 and the women of Ireland deserve better from their health service.”
Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly said it was a “postcode lottery” depending on what hospital a woman is attending. “In Galway partners are allowed in for one hour a day when the baby is born. In the rest of the north west there is no visiting allowed yet in some of the hospitals in Dublin it is three hours a day.”
She said “there is nothing in the world of a difference between a woman, a baby and a partner in the west of Ireland and in Dublin.
“Why we can’t show equality on this issue is, quite frankly, beyond me. We need to step up now.”
Fianna Fáil Senator Fiona O’Loughlin welcomed the “clarification from on high” but she said “there doesn’t seem to be the same clarification in the three maternity hospitals and 16 maternity units around the country.
“It is beyond time that partners were allowed to attend for scans and the full labour.”