The husband of a nurse who died of Covid-19 just days after giving birth to their daughter has pleaded with the prime minister to protect other pregnant women, as research reveals they are being put at greater risk during the second wave of the pandemic.
Ernest Boateng, whose wife, Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, died on 12 April after contracting the virus, said he didn’t want his wife’s death to be in vain, and called on the government to make it a legal requirement for employers to allow all pregnant women who pass 20 weeks gestation to work from home or be suspended on full pay.
Agyapong died at the Luton and Dunstable hospital in Bedfordshire, where she had worked for five years, five days after giving birth via emergency C-section. “She was never able to hold her baby daughter,” wrote Boateng.
A Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) report on her death was critical of her care. She was admitted to hospital and discharged on 5 April, but readmitted two days later. In September, a pre-inquest review heard that her husband had had concerns about her working conditions; a full inquest into her death will be heard in the new year.
It comes as data from the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed reveals that just 1% of 5,131 surveyed pregnant women who work outside the home say they have been suspended from work because of their pregnancy. This compares with 76% who had been suspended from work when the group asked the same question on 28 April.
Joeli Brearley, the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said the huge drop in the number of women being suspended from work on safety grounds was likely to be linked to the increased cost of furlough to employers, and women “feeling lucky to have a job, and not daring to rock the boat”.
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. But the survey found that nearly half of women working outside the home (47%) have not had a risk assessment.
The survey also found:
57% of pregnant women do not feel safe at work;
A quarter of employers who have done a risk assessment are not following it;
54% of pregnant women do not understand their legal rights if they feel unsafe at work.
“These vulnerable women are too scared to demand that their safety at work is taken seriously for fear of losing their job, forcing them to choose between their health and their livelihood,” said Brearley. “We must face the reality that pregnant women have died during this pandemic and much of the research to date shows that those in the later stages of pregnancy are at greater risk of severe illness.”
In his letter to Boris Johnson, Boateng cited research in France, which found that pregnant women were five times more likely to be admitted to ICU after 20 weeks than women in the first half of their pregnancy, adding that maternal Covid-19 was associated with an approximately three times greater risk of preterm birth.
By the end of September, the Health and Safety Executive had taken no formal enforcement action against any company for breaching their obligations to pregnant women since 16 March, the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed in an answer to a parliamentary written question. Notification of Contravention letters written to employers were not specifically recorded on HSE’s database, it stated.
An HSE spokesperson said it investigated when concerns were raised and used a range of enforcement, adding: “The majority of concerns of this nature can be resolved through guidance and advice as it is often a case of employers misunderstanding their health and safety responsibilities. Our purpose is the protection of workers and this includes vulnerable workers such as pregnant workers.”
A government spokesperson said all employers had to carry out risk assessments, and that concerned mothers should contact the HSE or their union.
But Brearley said the current guidelines were not enough to keep these women safe. “The government must do more to protect them – particularly those who are more than 20 weeks gestation, and black, Asian and ethnically diverse pregnant women,” she said. “No one wants another tragedy to happen like that of Mary Agyapong.’’