Victoria Atkins – 2024 Speech on Birth Trauma

The speech made by Victoria Atkins, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, on 13 May 2024.

Good evening everyone.

It is an absolute privilege to be speaking to you all this evening as we mark the launch of the first ever birth trauma inquiry report.

And I’d like to start by thanking my dear friend Theo [Theo Clarke MP] for her strength in speaking out about her own experiences and in so doing, creating this incredible workstream whereby other women are being invited to give their experiences and to be listened to.

I mean, Theo is, to my mind the exemplar of a Parliamentary powerhouse, and it’s been an absolute pleasure working with you, but also I genuinely think the work that you have achieved will have very, very long-term and positive benefits for women across England.

The reaction that you have received from women shows just how critical this work is.

You have given a voice to those who may never have shared the pain and the suffering that they have been through, or when they have spoken up, they have not been listened to.

And so, thanks to you and to the brave women in this room, but also the many, many brave women who have contributed to this report, or who have shared their stories today with media outlets, as it has rightly got such media attention.

But thanks to those brave women, things are changing and you are shining a bright light on the struggles that too many women face, and you are putting birth trauma at the heart of our national conversation, and ensuring that other mums do not have to suffer in silence.

And I’d also really like to thank the wider APPG, co-chaired by Theo but also by Rosie [Rosie Duffield MP], and both of whom have really demonstrated, along with APPG colleagues, just how cross-party working can work to the very best for us as a country.

And so thank you to every single Parliamentarian involved in the APPG.

And in that spirit, I am determined to make care for new mums and mums to be faster, simpler and fairer because the birth of a child should be among the happiest moments in our lives.

That said, of course, for the overwhelming majority of families it is.

Each week around 10,000 babies are born in England on the NHS and most of them are born safely and with mothers and families reporting a good experience of the care they receive.

But we want that for every woman and every family.

And as this inquiry demonstrates so starkly, there is far too much unacceptable variation across the country in the service that women receive.

Some mums endure simply unacceptable care and live with the consequences of that trauma for the rest of their lives.

Now I’ve been open about my own experiences with the NHS.

The NHS is genuinely one of the reasons I came into politics.

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 3 and I’ve seen the very best of the NHS, but I’ve also seen some of its darker corners and that includes in my own experience when I was pregnant.

As you can imagine the clinicians in the room will understand a type 1 diabetic being pregnant brings its own complications. And I had wonderful, wonderful care in many, many instances. But I also had examples where I wouldn’t wish other women to go through the same, including – and I’ve spoken about this – I was rushed into hospital earlier than anyone had planned, and I was put on a ward, heavily pregnant, not quite knowing what the future was holding for me or my baby.

And, I was on the ward where women who had just experienced extremely traumatic, dare I say it, dangerous births were being rushed from theatre on to the ward where I was.

Now clearly their experiences were far, far worse and far more traumatic than my own.

But you can imagine how frightening actually that experience was for a first-time mum to be, with the concerns that I was having to live with at the time.

So just that, as an example, I know everybody was trying to do their best at that point, but I desperately want to ensure that women who are expecting and who need additional support don’t find themselves in similar or even worse situations as I did.

And I want to make sure that no woman goes through a physical and mental trauma, and while giving birth, that could have been prevented.

Now I know that at the Women’s Health Summit in January, Dame Lesley Regan and I talked about – and forgive me, gentlemen – we talked about the NHS being a system that was created by men, for men.

And that struck a chord with many women, particularly those who know Lesley and know she is another female powerhouse. And the truth is that women have suffered in pain that would simply not be tolerated in any other part of the hospital.

Women have tried to raise concerns about unacceptable care, but they’re being told it’s all just natural.

And it is that, if you like, silencing, that really should not be the reality that women face in the 21st century.

We can and we will do better.

Now, being made Health Secretary in November, I have been impatient to make progress.

And that is why in January I held the Women’s Health Summit, where I made birth trauma one of the top priorities for the second year of the Women’s Health Strategy.

And I want to make this year not just the year that we listen, but that we act and that this is happening now.

We are rolling out new maternal mental health services for new mums, which are already available in all but 3 local health systems.

We are, believe you me, paying close attention to those final 3 areas to make sure they finalise their plans at pace this year.

On physical injuries too, we are rolling out improved perinatal pelvic health services, including guidance to better support women who experience serious tears and to prevent these from happening in the first place.

We’re halfway through. We plan to get to full coverage by the end of the financial year. And these services will be supported by our announcement at the Spring Budget of an extra £35 million more for more midwives and better training for when things go wrong.

On top of the extra £186 million a year we are already investing into maternity services and safety compared to 3 years ago.

And thanks to Theo, we have also introduced stand-alone GP appointments 6 to 8 weeks after giving birth to ask those crucial questions about whether mum is okay while keeping separate checks for her baby, because we know a happy, healthy mum means a happy, healthy baby.

And this is supported by new guidance to prompt direct questions about their birth experience, even if there is nothing in her notes to suggest that the birth was traumatic.

I want to embed a culture that listens to women right from the start of their pregnancy, and so I’m delighted that NHS England are co-producing new decision-making tools with new mums to help guide through choices on how they give birth, what interventions could happen and what pain relief they should be offered.

These will be made available in a range of languages and formats to make sure that they can be tailored to different settings and to different local populations, because the ethnic disparities that Kim [Dr Kim Thomas] and Theo have highlighted have to be tackled, and we are determined to do that.

Theo’s speech in Parliament spoke to the lasting impact that birth trauma can have on the whole family. And of course, dads and partners are very much part of that. And so I’m extremely grateful to Theo’s husband for making that point.

But also we have listened in government and Maria Caulfield, my minister, who is responsible for men’s health along with a great many other things, will be chairing the next session of the Men’s Health Task and Finish Group in June to focus on dads’ mental health and trauma so that we can better understand how to support partners.

And I’m delighted to announce that the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) will commission new research into the economic impact of birth trauma, including how this affects women returning to work.

That’s a really important idea and a really important commitment.

I know there is so much work to do to deliver on the detailed findings of this report and I, together with NHS England, fully support the APPG’s call to develop a comprehensive cross-government national strategy for maternal care.

I’m very grateful to the NHS for the progress that has been made so far on the 3-year delivery plan for maternity and neonatal services, but I want to go further and a comprehensive national strategy will help us to keep driving that work forward while making sure everyone across government and the health service are crystal clear about what we need in maternity services to focus on.

And I also want to be clearer to mums and those looking after them, what their rights and expectations should be, so that everybody can be clear about the standard of care that mums deserve.

So watch this space.

Now in conclusion, this is the first time in the NHS’s 75-year history that I, as the Secretary of State, but also the chief executive of NHS England, are both mums.

We get it.

And for this, this is not just professional, it is personal.

Both Amanda [Pritchard] and I take our responsibilities to all of you incredibly seriously and I have to say more soon on how I plan to make this area of our health system faster, simpler and fairer.

So I want to finish by thanking you, each and every one of you that has been involved in this report, for everything you have done to kickstart the national conversation about birth, trauma and how women should be listened to and their concerns acted upon.

And I really look forward to continuing this conversation with you in the months ahead.

Thank you so much.