COVID-19 restrictions in Scotland had “long-term consequences” for women who were pregnant or gave birth during the pandemic, a report has said.

Engender and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE) published a report setting out the experience of women accessing pregnancy and maternity services between March 2020 and November 2022.

“Trauma, abandonment and isolation: Experiences of pregnancy and maternity services in Scotland during Covid-19”, draws on survey responses from over 200 women across Scotland.

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It found that public health restrictions during the pandemic had a profound and negative impact on women from antenatal care and fertility treatment to miscarriage and baby loss, birth and the postnatal period.

The report particularly found that the need for women to be isolated while undergoing invasive procedures, and also prior to, during and after birth, had an adverse impact.

Restrictions in place meant that partners had to leave immediately after birth, and many women spent a large portion of their labour alone, described as “difficult and frightening” by respondents.

The report reads: “Findings reveal that the standard of care that women received was insufficient, with participants highlighting a lack of in-person support and antenatal provision, poor attitudes and treatment from staff, and the impact of staff capacity on care and treatment.

“Information on Covid-19 in relation to pregnancy and related services was significantly lacking, including with regard to the vaccine, and this exacerbated anxiety for many.”

Jill Wood, policy manager at Engender, said: “This research indicates that Covid-19 guidance and its application fundamentally failed to take account of women’s diverse needs and experiences during pregnancy and early motherhood.

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“Confusing and contradictory communication, lack of in-person care and support, inflexible restrictions and inconsistent approaches across health board areas all undermined access to safe, dignified and quality healthcare.

“The trauma caused by attending procedures and giving birth alone and the subsequent isolation, lack of support and adequate care, will stay with women long into the future.

“The Scottish Government must learn from this, improve maternal health more broadly, and deliver on commitments on women’s health.”

The report's key findings set out how the shift away from in-person care to remote appointments was a barrier to adequate standards of care.

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There was also a narrow focus on labour and delivery, overlooking other needs such as mental health and breastfeeding support, the report added.

Jane Miller, academy programme manager at the ALLIANCE, said: “Pregnancy and early parenthood can be challenging at the best of times. Our research shows that mitigation measures brought in during the pandemic exacerbated isolation and anxiety for many women in Scotland.

“There is now an urgent need to centre the experiences and priorities of women in the ongoing Covid-19 Inquiry, and in the development of any future emergency guidance regarding healthcare. We must mitigate the risk of isolation and adopt flexible, person-centred approaches grounded in human rights and gender equality.”

One participant in the research said it was “essential” that Scotland learned from people’s experiences during the pandemic to improve maternity services and public health messaging. “To do otherwise would be to fail, and further compound the trauma of, thousands of parents over the last few years,” they added.

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Gendered health inequalities, such as pain management and the lack of an intersectional approach, were also found to have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The report will be submitted as evidence to the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry, and sets out a series of recommendations, particularly the need for a gendered and human rights approach to crisis management, particularly that women’s particular experiences are taken into account.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is co-operating fully with the UK Covid-19 Inquiry and the Scottish Covid Inquiry and will follow all of the evidence given closely. We support both Inquiries in their work to explore the handling of the pandemic and to identify the vital lessons we all need to learn.

“It would not be appropriate to comment on detailed evidence presented to either Inquiry at this stage.”