Parents of sick and premature newborn babies are facing days or weeks unable to visit them in hospital neonatal units because of Covid-19, the Guardian has learned.
Disparities in hospital visiting guidance mean some parents have been unable to visit their babies at all, with one father saying he was facing three months without seeing his child.
A national charity is now urging the health secretary to ensure rapid testing across the board for parents of newborns forced to self-isolate owing to coronavirus symptoms experienced by them or a member of their household.
Bliss, which supports the families of premature or sick babies, has launched a campaign, Parents Arent Visitors, which also calls on Matt Hancock to introduce a package of support for parents facing visiting restrictions and financial pressures due to the pandemic.
The government said that any mother admitted to hospital who has a baby in a neonatal unit will automatically be tested for Covid-19, whether symptomatic or not – but parents spoke of the anguish of having to self-isolate away from their baby as a precaution.
Kayleigh Anthony, 29, from Cwmbran in Wales, was separated for a fortnight from her three-week-old daughter. She was advised to self-isolate for 14 days because her husband developed a cough and a fever meaning she couldnt see baby Eva, born 11 weeks premature on 7 March.
She said: “It was horrible, I was ringing the hospital five times a day to see if she was OK. My husband had to quarantine for seven days too so she went a week without seeing either of us. A nurse was by her side but I felt guilty not being there to feed and change her.”
Anthony was finally able to bring Eva home last Thursday. “When I finally saw her again she had changed so much.”
Another mother who lost one of her twins in utero experienced further trauma when she could not see her surviving baby because she had been in contact with a relative who tested positive for Covid-19.
Zoe Llewellyns son, Louis, weighed 0.62kg (1lb 6oz) when he was born on 17 December. She said: “We had quite a few scares with him, he had infections and blood transfusions. Just as he was improving and we were going to take him home, Covid hit.”
Llewellyn, 38, from Derby, who also has twins aged nine, said they had to delay bringing Louis home after she had to self-isolate. At the end of March, she was called to assist her 90-year-old grandmother who had had a fall and later died after testing positive for Covid-19 while in hospital.
Llewellyn explained: “We think she contracted the virus in hospital after I saw her but because it couldnt be confirmed I was told to self-isolate for 14 days.”
She begged for a Covid test so she could continue seeing her son, now four-and-a-half months, but was told it wasnt an option. “It was really upsetting, I was worried hed forget me and that I would miss seeing his first smile. It was so painful to think of missing those early milestones.”
Bliss said fast-track testing for affected parents could prevent them missing out on essential bonding time with their babies.
The charitys petition to ministers also asks for a fund to cover expenses – which has existed in Scotland since 2018 – to be rolled out across the rest of the UK, and demands free parking for the parents of sick babies plus the fast-tracking of plans for neonatal leave, currently to be rolled out in spring 2023.
Josie Anderson, campaigns manager at Bliss, said: “Parents arent visitors but key people in their babys care. We are aware of a small number of units already able to provide rapid testing, which can significantly reduce separation from as long as two weeks to a couple of days once a negative test is returned.”
One in seven babies born in the UK need neonatal care with an estimated 300 admitted daily to specialised units. Bliss said the number of families seeking its support had doubled since the pandemic.
Official guidance means hospitals must reduce the number of visitors on site and only one parent at a time can visit. Some units ask for a nominated parent and others restrict the amount of time they can spend with their newborn to as little as two hours a day.
Stephen Crofts baby, Theodore, was born on 13 March at 25 weeks. A fortnight after his birth, the unit switched its policy to one nominated visitor for each baby, meaning that only the mother can visit as the named parent.
Croft, whose baby is expected to remain in hospital until the end of June, said: “Lindsay goes to the hospital to be with him every day while I spend my days at home waiting for any pictures and updates. I feel like Ive had a bit of my heart taken out.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Any mother admitted to hospital who has a baby that is placed in the neonatal unit will automatically be tested for Covid-19, whether they show symptoms or not.”
The government confirmed it will also bring forward legislation to entitle parents with children in neonatal units to up to 12 weeks of leave and pay, subject to eligibility.