Pregnant healthcare workers across the UK have spoken of their fear at being pushed into working at the frontline of the coronavirus crisis, as it emerged that a nurse who close to full-term has died of Covid-19.
Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong had emergency caesarean to deliver and save her baby daughter, who survived and is being cared for.
The 28-year-old tested positive for virus on 5 April and died on Sunday. It is not known if she was working when she contracted the virus, nor if the baby has contracted Covid-19.
Her colleagues at Luton and Dunstable University hospital said she was “a fabulous nurse, and a great example of what we stand for”. The NHS trust’s chief executive, David Carter, said the survival of her baby daughter was a “beacon of light at this very dark time”.
Organisations supporting pregnant women have told the Guardian that hundreds of healthcare workers are being told they must work – sometimes without personal protective equipment – even though they fear for their unborn children.
The Guardian has heard from healthcare assistants, care home workers, nurses, physiotherapists and NHS childcare workers who in many cases have capitulated to the pressure to work, or have taken unpaid leave or sick pay.
Pregnant nurses and healthcare assistants said they were working in direct contact with Covid-19, and suspected Covid-19 patients, despite government guidelines classifying them as a vulnerable group. “We are disgusted with the treatment and stress they are putting in us at this already stressful time,” said one healthcare assistant.
Lobby groups and charities, including Pregnant Then Screwed(PTS) and Maternity Action, have written to the the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) urging it to change its guidance, which states women who are less than 28 weeks pregnant can continue in non-Covid patient-facing roles if necessary precautions are taken. More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling for more clarity and paid leave for pregnant healthcare workers.
Some pregnant women are being “gaslighted” by bosses and sometimes colleagues to go to work on the frontline, with a number of health trusts interpreting the RCOG guidelines differently, said Joeli Brearley, the founder and director of PTS.
“These women are really scared,” said Brearley. “Because this is being phrased as a woman’s choice, it is causing serious anxiety to women who don’t want to go to work but are being made to feel like they don’t want to help out during this crisis.”
One emergency-trained theatre nurse, who is 18 weeks pregnant and has miscarried five times, said she was redeployed in a “clean” intensive care unit for non-Covid patients but has since dealt with seriously ill ventilated patients waiting for Covid test results. When she asked to be redeployed she was told she would have to go on sick leave despite having a letter from her GP.
“I am not the only pregnant nurse working in my area, none of us has been treated with respect since the Covid outbreak,” said the 26-year-old. “I am disappointed with the NHS. Staff are not being protected at all.”
In a recent survey of 3,004 pregnant women carried out by PTS, 34% of 261 pregnant NHS workers who took part said they were still working and worried about their safety. Legally all employers must carry out a risk assessment for pregnant workers, and if they cannot remove the risk of infection find an alternative role or suspend on full pay. It is unlawful for employers to force workers to take sick pay, holiday or unpaid leave.
In recent days 111 workers who had been at home on full pay are now being told their workplace is safe, said Brearley. One 37-year-old, who is pregnant after her “last chance” of IVF, said she was told to return to work on the day she received the call. “Now I’m venturing into the peak of the pandemic in the worst situation I could think of,” she said. Her GP told her all NHS workers were scared and worried but were “getting on with it” before asking her not to contact the practice again. “I’ve been left feeling incredibly guilty,” she said.
Rosalind Bragg, director of Maternity Action, said its helpline was fielding calls from healthcare workers, particularly care workers, being unlawfully forced to take sick leave. She said a lack of clear government guidance and absence of consequences for employers acting unlawfully were exacerbating the issue.
A spokesperson for the RCOG said its guidance was supported by the UK chief medical officers and that existing employment law “should help ensure … pregnant women in the first two trimesters of pregnancy avoid, where possible, caring for patients with suspected or confirmed coronavirus infection”.
RCOG guidance is being updated to make clear that pregnant women should not have to continue working without a risk assessment, and that suitable alternative work should be offered, said the spokesperson.