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filming backlash Visiting hours extended at Rotunda Hospital as more pregnant women and partners vaccinated

Move follows backlash over RTÉ filming in hospital at height of pandemic and amid criticism of ongoing restrictions

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The Rotunda maternity hospital has announced it will ease restrictions on visitors from Monday because more of its patients and their partners are now vaccinated.

The hospital said an increase in vaccine uptake among pregnant women at the hospital and their partners allowed it to extend the visiting hours from 8am to 8pm.

But it also comes amid a backlash after RTÉ crews filmed in the hospital at a time when partners were not allowed at the height of the last wave of the pandemic from November to January.

However, other Covid-related restrictions will continue to apply.

There has been fierce criticism of ongoing restrictions in maternity services from campaigners despite promises from the HSE and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly that they would be mostly lifted in line with HSE guidelines.

Certain restrictions mean that some partners wait in their cars or on the street until their partners are in labour, and in some cases have missed upsetting scan results or the births of their children.

In a statement on Saturday morning, the hospital said it was “delighted to be able to announce a significant uptake in Covid-19 vaccination rates amongst its patient population”.

"The Rotunda conducts regular point prevalence surveys of its patients regarding their Covid-19 vaccination status, with its most recent survey reporting that 57pc of patients and 74pc of their partners being fully vaccinated,” the hospital said.

"This reflects current data from our most recent inpatient survey, which had a 95pc response rate.

"It also reflects the strong effort and lead being taken by the Rotunda in better informing patients on the very significant health benefits of Covid-19 vaccination during pregnancy.”

The hospital added that the Irish Medicines in Pregnancy Service, which is funded and based at the Rotunda, together with the Rotunda’s various other information forums and platforms will continue to do whatever they can to encourage this vaccination rate to grow even higher.

“In response to this significant improvement in vaccination rates, effective Monday September 13, 2021, the Rotunda will now be able to extend visiting hours for partners to 08.00am to 08.00pm each day,” the hospital said.

"All other existing access controls to keep all patients safe continue to apply. This brings the Rotunda’s visiting arrangements close to pre-pandemic levels and remains vastly more accessible to arrangements that remain at almost all acute general hospitals in the state.

"The Rotunda’s management team will continue to keep these arrangements under regular review, taking all necessary precautions to keep all our patients safe, while making decisions that are evidenced and based on current Infection Prevention and Control guidance.

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Early in August, the master of the Rotunda, Prof Fergal Malone said restrictions on visits and partners accompanying pregnant women for certain scans would only be eased if there was a higher vaccination uptake among them, and that poor ventilation in the hospital’s old buildings also posed a problem during the pandemic.

Prof Malone said its regular surveys showed that only 39pc of inpatients and 41pc of partners have been vaccinated against Covid-19. This has now risen to 57pc and 74pc currently. In recent weeks official guidance has changed to say that pregnant women can be vaccinated at any stage of their pregnancy, whereas previously they were advised not to get a first dose until they were 14 weeks pregnant.

“While 75 to 85pc of the general population are vaccinated [figures from last month], that’s not reflected of what’s going on in maternity hospitals,” Prof Malone said last month

"If we can get the vaccination number up towards that range then absolutely you’ll see it being safe to relax all restrictions.

"So, I’d encourage every single pregnant woman to please get vaccinated, and their partners.”

Despite the HSE promising strict rules on maternity services would soon be lifted, the Rotunda Hospital said last month that it would not be fully easing its restrictions as “it is not yet safe”.

“Every one of our delivery rooms is a single, private, delivery room, so whether she is 1cm dilated or 10cm the patients partner will be with them for every minute of that journey,” Prof Malone said.

“Sometimes for the induction of labour, or if someone is in the early stages of labour, they might be in a six or ten person room and this is in the old building that does not have ventilation.

"So if you have six mothers and the that's 12 with partners, in particular if they are not vaccinated, that is a serious risk.”

Yesterday, the hospital said it "very much regrets any upset or anxiety" caused by the broadcasting of a TV series filmed there during the pandemic, when there were even more severe restrictions on partners and when very few people were vaccinated.

It came as the Minister for Health called on bosses at the maternity hospital to explain why an RTE camera crew was allowed to film a programme while partners of pregnant women faced restrictions.

The latest series of The Rotunda, which documents the stories of expectant parents, started this week.

A spokesperson said: "The Rotunda very much regrets any upset or anxiety that the broadcast of this important documentary has caused, as none was ever intentioned.

"The Rotunda will continue to support and care for its patients and staff to the best of its ability, throughout both good times and challenging conditions.

"We will continue, in good faith, to always do our best for our patients and our families."

However, the spokesperson also defended the decision to record the series.

They said: "Management at the Rotunda consider the series to be an important platform that enables patients to share their experiences, both good news stories and those that are heartbreaking.

"The Rotunda believes that it is important to hear these challenges and stories, and to acknowledge the experiences of patients and staff during the difficult time created by the Covid-19 pandemic."

They also noted "the strong positive reaction (including from very senior politicians) to the RTÉ Investigates: Inside Ireland's Covid Battle documentary series which was broadcast in July 2020."

"That documentary was filmed at the height of the pandemic inside St James' Hospital Intensive Care Unit, when even more restrictive conditions than have ever applied at the Rotunda were in place" the statement said.

"The Rotunda management team were reassured to note that some of the same production staff involved in that much-lauded documentary were involved in series three of The Rotunda."

Both RTE and the Rotunda have faced widespread criticism after a film crew was permitted on site when partners of expectant mothers were forced to wait outside maternity hospitals because of Covid restrictions.

Earlier on Friday, Stephen Donnelly said the Master of the Rotunda should make a statement on its decision to go ahead with filming.

"Access to maternity services for partners has been a very, very important issue this year," he said.

"There's been an awful lot of very difficult cases. For me what has been particularly distressing is cases where there have been emergencies and partners haven't been able to get in."

Fianna Fail senator Lisa Chambers said it was "wrong" to allow filming to take place.

"I was disgusted to see that programme air when mums were left alone, dads were left to wait in the carpark," Ms Chambers said.

"It is wrong, Rotunda should answer questions on it, I think RTE should have known better than to do it.

"It is just compounding the hurt that many parents across the country feel when they remember the experience that they have been through."

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said there should be "consistency" when making clinical decisions.

"Fathers and partners shouldn't be facing restrictions and I've have been consistent on that quite some time, and I've made my views known to the Chief Executive Officer of the HSE who has undertaken to ensure there would be uniformity across the system," he added.

"Clinical autonomy applies but I don't think it was appropriate that partners were denied access but then media were allowed in .

RTÉ said the film crew was reduced to "the bare minimum" of one or two people, with a lot of filming taking place off-site, adding: “"Strict Covid-19 infection prevention and control protocols were followed at all times by the production."

With reporting by PA and Ciara O’Loughlin

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