Stillbirth and premature birth rates not affected by Covid-19

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) new analysis of data on births in England and Wales during the pandemic doesn’t show any unusual changes, reassuring those worried about the impact of coronavirus on pregnancy.

The ONS looked at NHS data on births between January and September this year to see if the coronavirus pandemic may have had an impact on how many babies are premature or stillborn in England and Wales. Despite widespread concern about how Covid-19 may affect pregnancies, and some small studies in other countries reporting increases and decreases, the new ONS figures show that preterm birth and stillbirth rates here are in line with recent national trends.

People generally have fewer babies now than they used to, and the total fertility rate in England and Wales last year was the lowest it’s been since 2002 – so unsurprisingly we haven’t seen as many births in 2020 so far as we had at this point in 2019, but still hundreds of thousands of parents have faced the unique challenges of bringing their new-born home in a pandemic. There were 153,464 live births in England and Wales from April to June when we first went into lockdown, and similar numbers in the previous 3 months before such tight restrictions were in place.

Every baby lost is one too many and sadly 1,835 babies were stillborn in England and Wales from January to September this year. However, this is 130 fewer than the same time last year, bringing the overall stillbirth rate down slightly from 4 to 3.9 in every thousand births. However, there is still much more to be done to meet the Government’s ambition to halve these tragic losses by 2025.

Covid-19 has also meant some women have been unable to access good-quality maternity care during their pregnancy, so it is difficult to understand how much of an impact this has had on these figures, and whether stillbirth rates would have fallen further if all women had access to the care they are entitled to.

“While each stillbirth is an unacceptable tragedy, it’s reassuring to see that rates have not risen during the pandemic – but progress is too slow, and it’s heart-breaking to wonder how much better things could have been if every mother and baby had been given the best possible care this year.” - Jane Brewin, Tommy’s CEO

Stillbirth rates decreased in the first and third quarters of this year compared to the same time last year, down 2.4% from January to March and 7.3% from July to September, but in the second quarter from April to June they stayed the same. It’s important to keep in mind there are seasonal variations in these figures each year, so monthly changes aren’t always cause for concern.

“The pandemic is still unfolding and solid research evidence takes time to develop – so there are a lot of questions right now, but Tommy’s is collaborating with scientists across the world to find the answers.” - Professor Alex Heazell, Director of our Stillbirth Research Centre

Despite some countries reporting fewer premature babies during the pandemic, the latest ONS data here is still in line with recent national trends. While still high compared to some countries in Europe, preterm birth rates in England and Wales decreased slightly for the second year in a row, from 7.8% in 2019 to 7.5% in the first three quarters of 2020.

The fall is largely because of a continued reduction in babies born moderately premature (32-36 weeks), from 6.5% last year to 6.3% this year. Rates of very (28-31 weeks) and extremely (under 28 weeks) preterm birth have stayed the same, at 0.8% and 0.5% respectively. Clinicians can often decide to deliver babies prematurely if they believe there is a risk of stillbirth.

Our chief executive Jane Brewin explained: “Reducing premature birth rates is key to saving babies’ lives, and the Government won’t reach its goal to halve rates of stillbirth by 2025 without urgent action to understand the inequalities in maternity care and the disproportionate risks facing some families. If they put in place things we already know make a big difference to pregnancy safety - like having the same midwife throughout the journey to parenthood, with ongoing risk assessments, and frequent check-ups if needed - we could speed up progress and make pregnancy safer for all.”