Fertility treatments were suspended by the government three weeks into the first national lockdown due to the impact that COVID-19 was having on the NHS, and the then-unknown risks of the virus to pregnant women. A new report from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) shows that NHS clinics were slower to resume, with only 34 percent reopening on the first permitted day, compared to 83 percent of private clinics.
'Many patients wanted to begin or continue fertility treatment during the pandemic and clinic staff went above and beyond to offer safe care,' said HFEA chair Julia Chain. 'However, COVID-19 related measures did impact some patients, as many appointments had to be provided remotely and those that were in person, were restricted in attendance to just the patient.'
Fertility clinics were told to close in April 2020 and could apply to reopen from 11 May if a safe environment could be created for patients and staff.
Total NHS-funded IVF treatments fell by seven percent in 2020, compared to 2019. Reasons that NHS treatment was more seriously impacted may include staff redeployment to other areas of the NHS, and that many NHS fertility clinics are located within hospitals treating COVID patients and may have had to take extra precautions around social distancing.
The new report shows that IVF cycles in patients between 18-34 years decreased more than that of patients aged 40-50, likely due to clinics prioritising older patients as the probability of successful treatment decreases with age.
Those in heterosexual relationships experienced a greater decrease in IVF cycles in 2020 compared to those in same-sex relationships. This may be because of the larger proportion of NHS-funded fertility treatment for heterosexual couples. Embryo storage was the only area in which an increase over 2019 was observed.
The report echoes findings of the HFEA patient survey published by the HFEA last month which found that NHS-funded patients were twice as likely to report experiencing delays in starting IVF treatment than privately funded patients (see BioNews 1141).
'These figures confirm our fears that the double whammy of poor NHS funding and the COVID pandemic had a devastating impact on UK fertility patients,' said Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust. 'Privately funded IVF cycles not only matched but exceeded 2019 levels by mid-2020, whereas NHS-funded cycles had yet to return to 2019 levels by mid-2021. It is yet unclear whether the situation has improved since then.'