Women undergoing IVF became “very anxious” after clinics closed due to Covid in spring 2020, while NHS-funded IVF has plummeted 7 per cent during the pandemic, according to new research.
A report by the Human Fertilization & Embryology Authority, the fertility watchdog, found that most fertility treatments were temporarily halted in mid-April 2020 along with other elective medical treatments.
This was a direct result of the reduction in in-person appointments by healthcare professionals due to nationwide efforts to stem the spread of Covid, combined with NHS staff being redeployed to fight on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.
Watchdog researchers found that thanks to their advice and support, the UK’s fertility sector was able to reopen after just a few weeks.
The study found that while fertility clinics could apply to reopen their doors in the first week, around eight in 10 private clinics and around three in 10 NHS clinics had been given the green light to reopen. But by October 202 the proportion had risen to 97 per cent of private clinics and 95 per cent of NHS clinics.
Clare Ettinghausen of the Human Fertilization & Embryology Authority LatestPageNews: “The success of IVF is often related to the age at which you have it and unfortunately fertility decreases with age. Any delay can be devastating and affect whether someone is successfully treated.”
She noted that the “uncertainty” caused by the closure of IVF clinics amid the pandemic caused “a lot of stress and anxiety for a lot of patients and their partners” because they had no idea when to start their treatment again would become.
Ms Ettinghausen added: “We have had many, many patients who were very concerned about whether they would receive treatment.
“They were concerned whether age-based NHS funding would be phased out while clinics were closed. As much as we tried to educate patients, in the first lockdown we didn’t know how long it would be before clinics would reopen.”
She found that in some areas women cannot access IVF through the NHS once they are over 38, while elsewhere in England they can be treated up to the age of 40.
Ms Ettinghausen said: “People were extremely stressed and worried if the clinics were to reopen. People were angry. It was a very difficult time for her because of the uncertainty.”
Across the UK, nearly 70 per cent of fertility treatments are carried out privately and paid for by patients themselves, she added, explaining that private clinics could reopen more quickly because they would not have staff or equipment to be transferred to other parts of the healthcare system.
Ms Ettinghausen said it was surprising that IVF treatment hadn’t fallen more sharply during the pandemic – adding that this was the first elective service to reopen during the public health crisis.
“The IVF process includes other women’s health or gynecological appointments before fertility treatment can begin,” she added. “That’s where we saw the legacy of Covid as the waiting lists have really grown. This can continuously impact IVF.”
The report found that the number of NHS-funded IVF cycles for patients aged 18-34 fell by 38 per cent from 2019 to 2020, compared to a 13 per cent fall for patients of the same age who were private financed.
The researchers argued that the report’s findings showed fewer patients were experiencing delays in IVF during the Covid crisis than they had previously feared might have been the case.
Julia Chain, chair of the Fertility Guard, said: “Understandably, many patients have wanted to start or continue fertility treatment during the pandemic and clinic staff have done everything possible to provide safe care.
“However, the measures related to Covid-19 had an impact on some patients, as many appointments had to be made remotely and those that took place in person were limited to the presence of the patient.”
Jason Kasraie, Consulting Embryologist at Shropshire and Mid-Wales Fertility Centre, said: “The initial closure of clinics was an incredibly stressful event for many couples as each month of delay could reduce their chances of starting a family.
“While we had to make some difficult decisions, such as For example, asking couples to isolate and test themselves during their treatments and attend appointments as individuals when both partners would normally be present, clinic staff have worked incredibly hard to mitigate these issues and offer additional support.”