Fertility services were the first elective health service to reopen during the pandemic with the hard work of healthcare professionals keeping fertility patients’ hopes for a family alive, says the fertility watchdog.
A new report just published reveals that NHS-funded treatments fell by seven percent across the UK with almost 26,000 patients over 35 receiving IVF treatments; a group prioritised by clinics as the chance of having a baby following fertility treatment decreases with age.
The HFEA said the latest data confirms that fewer patients experienced delays during the pandemic than initially feared.
Most fertility treatments were paused in mid-April with other elective medical treatments due to lockdown and the impact of Covid-19 on the NHS. However, with HFEA guidance, the UK fertility sector reopened after a few weeks – with clinics quickly adapting and introducing new ways of delivering safe services.
Julia Chain, chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said: “Fertility clinic staff worked incredibly hard to re-open during the pandemic providing a safe service for patients. They showed great commitment to coping with staff absences and dealing with the pressures of national restrictions both in their professional and personal lives. This has meant that while most normal life was put on pause, many patients’ hopes for a much longed-for baby, were not.
“During this time, patients were prioritised based on clinical urgency and for the fertility sector, that meant prioritising patients who were coming to the end of their window of fertility. Fertility treatment can be emotionally and physically demanding and having treatment during the pandemic would have been even more stressful. We know that this would have been a very difficult time for many patients, particularly those whose treatment was paused.”
The HFEA say that variation between nations is likely linked to several factors including local restrictions, the speed at which individual clinics could reopen and higher proportions of private funding in some areas.
Julia said: “In comparison to private care, NHS clinics more commonly had staff redeployed to support other hospital services which could have led to NHS clinics being slower to restart treatment in 2020. High waiting times for tests or surgery may have delayed treatment too; an aftershock of Covid-19 that we expect will continue for at least another 12-24 months.
“Understandably, many patients wanted to begin or continue fertility treatment during the pandemic, and clinic staff went above and beyond to offer safe care. However, Covid-19 related measures did have an impact on some patients, as many appointments had to be provided remotely and those that were in person, were restricted in attendance to just the patient.”
The Impact of Covid-19 on Fertility Treatment 2020 report also revealed registration for new egg donors decreased by 23 percent from 2019 to 2020, compared to a 14 percent decrease in new sperm donor registrations; there was a 22 percent decrease in IVF cycles in heterosexual relationships and six percent in same-sex female relationships; embryo storage increased by six percent from 2019 to 2020 and was the only increase from 2019 to 2020.
Julia said: “The drop in egg and sperm donation could be due to a number of factors; local lockdowns, hesitancy in coming forward in fear of adding pressure to NHS services and there may have also been concerns around catching Covid-19. Additionally, when re-starting treatment in May 2020, clinics prioritized patients who had experienced delays to treatment rather than proactively seeking new donations.
“We know the number of patients wanting to use donor eggs and sperm is increasing, with the use of donor eggs doubling since 2009. In some areas, patients requiring a donor have long waits for a match, particularly if they are looking for donors from for example a specific ethnic minority background. We’re concerned waiting times are going to get longer, putting patients in a position where they must choose between losing links to their heritage or their chance of parenthood.”
To find out more about the HFEA, click here.