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Hospital birthing restrictions of 'significant concern'

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The midwives and nurses’ union says it was not consulted and has “significant concern” about strict new restrictions at an Adelaide hospital that ban new mothers from having their partner stay for longer than four hours after birth.

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It comes after Premier Steven Marshall said he was hopeful that SA Health would today announce whether it would reconsider the restrictions, which have been widely condemned by both sides of politics and spurred more than 22,000 people to sign a public petition calling for their removal.

Under new rules announced by the Lyell McEwin Hospital last week in response to the Omicron outbreak, expectant mothers are only allowed to have their partner or support person present while in active labour, or when their cervix dilates past four centimetres.

Partners or support people are only allowed into the hospital if they return a negative rapid antigen test result, and must leave four hours after the baby’s birth.

The Australian Nurses and Midwives Federation (ANMF) state chief executive Elizabeth Dabars told parliament’s COVID-19 Response committee this morning that she was not consulted about the restrictions and the issue was of “significant concern”.

“There was no consultation or engagement on any intention to shut down visitation,” she said.

“Obviously birthing is a really important time for the mother and the partner to be available to each other and partner does provide that really important support.

“We are in full support of changes being made to ensure that there’s better accessibility.”

The Northern Adelaide Local Health Network, which oversees the Lyell McEwin Hospital, says the restrictions are needed due to the size of the hospital, lower vaccination rates in Adelaide’s north and concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19.

The hospital says exceptions are made for compassionate reasons.

The ANMF’s operations and strategy director Rob Bonner said he had raised issues of hospital visitor access with SA Health, with decisions currently made on an “ad hoc basis”.

He said the union supported a “balance between the community’s need to access services and the right to be present at important times of life and death with their loved ones, but also not exposing other members of the public and patients and staff to risk”.

“There is a competing interest here,” he said, adding that until one week ago nurses and midwives at the Lyell McEwin Hospital reported that they couldn’t access rapid antigen tests.

Premier Steven Marshall, who has called for an urgent review of the restrictions, told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning that the situation was “causing a lot of people stress at the moment”.

“It is an extraordinary situation that the Northern Adelaide Local Health Network has taken to temporarily restrict the partners from being there at the time of the birth,” he said.

“I know that the hospitals are very anxious about infection control at any time – especially during a COVID outbreak – but this does seem an extraordinary situation.

“I’ve been on the phone again this morning to Dr Chris McGowan – he’s the chief executive of SA Health – and hopefully we get an answer later this morning.”

Marshall said SA Health told him the restrictions were put in place because vaccination rates in Adelaide’s north are lower than the rest of the state and the configuration of the Lyell McEwin Hospital’s birthing ward was “not as spacious”.

“I’ve just asked them to look at all and every single opportunity for allowing partners to be with those that are birthing for a lot longer period of time than they’re currently allowed to,” he said.

“From my mind, there must be some alternatives to mitigate that risk – not increasing that infection risk – but also allowing partners to be there… at the time of the birth.”

A spokesperson from the Northern Adelaide Local Health Network told InDaily it was reviewing the restrictions this morning.

“These restrictions are to protect the health and safety of parents and new babies in our care, particularly while the northern suburbs has relatively low vaccination rates and high incidence of COVID-19,” the spokesperson said. 

Meanwhile, Dabars said peak health unions including the ANMF, the South Australian Salaried Medical Officers Association and the Ambulance Employees Association of SA were “very pleased” with a meeting held with Marshall and Health Minister Stephen Wade on Tuesday.

The unions – representing 25,000 nurses, doctors and paramedics – requested the meeting following concerns of unprecedented ambulance delays of up to seven hours for emergency cases, staff shortages requiring others to work up to 18 hours a day, lack of personal protective equipment, overflowing hazardous waste bins and a lack of breaks.

Dabars told the parliamentary committee that her union had issued seven demands, which Marshall agreed to implement either in full or in part.

The demands included providing greater transparency, increasing bed capacity outside major hospitals, increasing the availability of PPE and rapid antigen tests, and action on “burn out, fatigue and the morale of staff”.

“We were… very pleased that the Premier listened to what we were saying and seemed receptive and indicated an interest to commit at least in principle,” Dabars said.

“What we now need to see is action and our concern is despite those commitments, which are very welcome, they don’t offer immediate relief to our members.

“They do offer some sense of hope or sense of hopefulness that things will change.”

It comes as state and territory leaders meet today at national cabinet to discuss protocols for when schools go back and potentially reducing quarantine times for people who test COVID-positive.

The United States and England have both slashed their quarantine periods down from seven days to five for some people, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison telling reporters yesterday that similar moves were “under active consideration” in Australia.

People who test positive for COVID-19 in South Australia currently have to undertake 10 days of isolation.

Asked this morning ahead of the national cabinet meeting if he would support halving the state’s quarantine period, Marshall told ABC Radio Adelaide “that’s not one that we will be signing up to”.

“We know that patients still have symptoms after five days, in fact, after seven days,” he said.

“We would literally be lighting a fire in South Australia if we allowed them to leave quarantine after five days.”

Marshall also said that there was “no health advice” to suggest surveillance COVID testing of students should be part of the plan to safely return students to classrooms, but rapid antigen testing could be provided to teachers.

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