Our Chief Executive Clea Harmer writes about how Sands is working hard to support bereaved families and save lives during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the current lockdown continues so do the feelings of isolation, and I am acutely aware of how hard these feelings can be for all those whose baby has died, however long ago. 

2020 was such a hard year, and the complex emotions, grief and heartbreak being experienced by those devastated after the loss of a pregnancy or a baby were summed up for me by one of our posts on Instagram.

“With this year coming to an end and all wanting to leave 2020 behind them, I want to wrap my grieving arms round 2020 and never let go. 2020 the year I said hello and goodbye to Poppy Hope” – Jenna, Poppy Hope’s mum.

In the face of such grief and isolation, feeling part of a community of support has never been more important – and offering a whole range of different ways to help bereaved parents and families connect with each other has been crucial for Sands. 

Our online community, Facebook support group and fundraising challenges such as Jog 50 Miles in March are some of the many ways that we have managed to bring people together – providing comfort and reassurance for people that they are not alone.

Perhaps one of the most important things for a charity to feel is that it is really ‘making a difference’ – and being there for all those affected by the death of a baby is one of the ways we make that difference.  Ensuring that the maternity care provided for pregnant women is safe and personalised is another way we can make a real impact.

So throughout the pandemic we have kept up our work to drive improvements in maternity safety and to reduce the number of babies dying.  Amid the current challenges, we mustn’t lose sight of the ambition to reduce baby deaths; bereaved parents and families expect no less.

In recent months there have been several moments when the need for improvements has been brought into the spotlight for tragic reasons.

In December Donna Ockenden published her interim report on findings in the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals NHS Trust.  We have supported this enquiry from the start – working with the team to provide support for all those families who bravely shared their experiences. But we have had an equally important role in highlighting the need for urgent action to improve safety for mothers and babies.

The Health and Social Care Committee’s inquiry into the safety of maternity services in England has provided another opportunity for us to highlight the need to address the systemic changes that are needed to embed a no-blame culture where real and continual learning results in compassionate and safe care which is centred around the needs of individual mothers and their partners and families.

Also in December, Data published by MBRRACE-UK (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the country) showed stillbirth rates for Black and Black British babies are more than double those of White babies, and neonatal death rates are 45% higher. Similarly, stillbirth and neonatal death rates for Asian and Asian British babies are both around 60% higher. 

These unacceptable and incredibly sad statistics show that the issues of maternity safety affect some groups more than others and are another reminder that we must redouble our efforts to understand and address these inequalities in order to save babies’ lives.

Alongside this work has been the need to make a difference for bereaved families directly affected by Covid restrictions, in particular to ensure that mothers who are pregnant after a loss can have their partners with them during scans. 

We have raised awareness of the impact of having to attend scans alone by sharing the voices and heart-breaking experiences of bereaved parents, and new guidance has meant that Trusts and Health Boards should now make every effort to allow partners to attend.  However, we know that there are still areas where this is not happening and will continue to work until it is.

This last year has seen huge pressures on individuals, on families, and on the health service – but knowing that we can and have made a difference in so many ways has given a sense of renewed focus and commitment.  We all know how important the work we do is, but the pandemic has highlighted this for others as well.

Clea Harmer

Chief Executive, Sands

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