Legislation to ensure women receiving maternity care can be accompanied by their partners to hospital appointments around childbirth and afterwards has been introduced in the Dáil.
Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín introduced the Maternity Care (Covid-19) Bill as women and their partners demonstrated outside Leinster House on Wednesday, protesting against restrictions on partners.
A number of the 19 maternity hospitals and units still impose restrictions despite assurances from the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, the Taoiseach and director general of the HSE that they should be lifted.
Mr Tóibín said the protesters were demonstrating “because a cruel and inhumane restriction policy is still in place in some hospitals”.
Despite Mr Donnelly repeatedly criticising the restrictions “those in Government just shrugged their shoulders and said they could not do anything about the situation”.
Claiming Government Ministers are speaking out of both sides of their mouths, he said “either this practice is wrong and needs to stop or it is right and the Government is allowing these hospitals to continue doing it”.
The Meath West TD also highlighted a number of “heart breaking emails” sent to Mr Donnelly by pregnant women last year and released under freedom of information legislation.
He quoted one woman who said she had to “sit in a room alone to be told that my baby had died. I was sent from this room alone reeling from what I had just heard to sit on a busy ward corridor sobbing alone.
“This is simply unacceptable. At no point was I allowed to have my husband present to provide any sort of comfort. I sat for hours alone and broken in one of your maternity hospitals.”
Another recalled a miscarriage when “the monitor turned dark and the midwife told me there was no heartbeat”.
“It was an unexpected and earth-shattering experience that no woman should have to go through alone and it is a scandal of our time that women are ... forced to endure this (by themselves).”
The protesters outside Leinster House were joined by TDs from across the political divide and a number also raised the issue in the Dáil with Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien who was standing in for the Taoiseach.
Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly, who described the restrictions as harmful, said “we are now almost 20 months into the pandemic yet women are labouring alone and seeing their partners leave after a mere hour spent with their newborn child”.
Labour leader Alan Kelly said "it is desperate that they have to do this" as he asked "who's in charge?".
He added: “How can it be that these restrictions are not unilaterally lifted, and that in some locations, they are still in place? It’s barbaric.”
Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns said “the situation is now growing so farcical that from October 22nd a person will be able to attend a nightclub but partners will still be told to wait in the car park when they arrive at a maternity hospital for the birth of their child”.
But the Minister said women “should have access for their partners to the maternity hospital”. Mr Donnelly had made that clear too, he said.
Mr O’Brien said the latest guidance was published on September 3rd, with an implementation date of September 13th, “and that clearly sets out the controls and access for partners as well”.
He acknowledged that “it is a very serious and emotive issue on what is for many families a very special day.
“We must also recognise the fact that we are still living with Covid-19 in the community right now.”
The Minister said the Government has issued guidance on it. “The HSE is committed to keeping any restrictions that are in place under review.”
But he added: “Let’s be straight with people as well. Covid-19 is still in the community. People are still being hospitalised with Covid. We have to manage those who are vaccinated, and, perhaps, also those who have symptoms and assess how that can be managed.”