Why this Newcastle baby is a UK first in efforts to protect the planet

Rosie is asleep when I meet her and her mother at home in Newcastle.

At two months old, she is oblivious to the fact that she has made a little piece of medical history.

When she arrived in September, Rosie became the first baby to be born in the UK with the aid of climate-friendly gas and air.

This form of pain relief has been given to women during labour for more than a hundred years but it contains nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. When breathed out, that gas escapes into the atmosphere.

When Rosie's mother Kaja went into hospital to give birth, she breathed into a machine which separates the nitrous oxide into its component parts of nitrogen and oxygen, which are harmless.

Credit: The Newcastle-upon-Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

While Kaja had other things on her mind at the time, two months on, she tells me she feels privileged to have played her part in the trial.

While the technology is already used regularly in Sweden, for Newcastle Hospitals, it was a first step on the road to introducing it more widely.

The impact could be significant: over the past year, around eight million litres of gas and air were used across the trust; the majority in maternity services. 

For midwifery matron Lynsey McKay, there is real significance in bringing a new generation into the world in a climate friendly way.

The nitrous oxide initiative is part of much wider efforts by Newcastle Hospitals to dramatically reduce its impact on the planet. In 2019, the trust became the first healthcare organisation in the world to declare a climate emergency. It has set these ambitious targets:

Another key aim is taking carbon-emitting vehicles off the roads. As a large organisation operating across several sites, dozens of journeys are made every day, delivering patient samples and equipment.

The trust is establishing a fleet of entirely electric vehicles, which, according to those involved, should benefit the entire city.

During the pandemic, a drug delivery service was established, to take medication to outpatients in their homes via electric 'cargo bike'. The service operates across the city and beyond, and is estimated to have cut patient journeys to hospital dispensaries by several thousand.

While these initiatives are leading to change, the fact remains that hospitals are huge users of energy and resources. I sat down with the trust's Chief Executive Dame Jackie Daniel and asked her whether healthcare can ever be truly sustainable. She believes it can.

"We are learning so much more about how to be sustainable," she said.

"We started by recycling and simple things like that but we're now much more sophisticated in the products that we're using."

For Dame Jackie, the health of the population and the health of the planet are interlinked; she sees it as the responsibility of her trust to ensure that people can live well - in a clean and safe environment.