UPDATED: 1ST NOVEMBER 2020
A second wave of coronavirus was inevitable but are we better prepared a second time? Faced with no better choice we are now just days away from a second lockdown in England. After much criticism of government strategy on managing the virus we follow in the footsteps of France, Belgium, Wales and other neighbouring countries that have already done this. Whilst the weeks and months ahead still offer uncertainty for life in general, many embarking on IVF treatment will wonder what lies ahead for them.
Fertility clinics have adapted well and most have returned to a new way of normal. However, several months after the easing of the first lockdown, the UK economy is straining to restart. It feels as though we are still picking up the pieces from the effects of the first wave of coronavirus, and without drawing breath we are facing a further 4-weeks of economic inactivity. So what does Round 2 mean for fertility clinics and your access to treatments?
What exactly is the new normal and what is the future? It remains something that many of us are still trying to figure out. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK regulator of assisted conception treatments, drew up specific criteria that clinics must meet before they reopened in June. Any clinic now open will have passed these rigorous HFEA assessments to be able to offer IVF treatment to patients safely.
Just weeks after the initial government announcement of a UK-wide lockdown the Health Secretary declared that IVF treatments could resume. This news was greeted with great relief by patients and clinics and there was a strong recoil of patients keen to get on with their treatment through the summer.
The wearing of face masks is now mandatory on buses, tubes and trains. Fertility clinic staff are all operating but wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for patient interactions. The new normal means that any scans or procedures, such as egg collections or embryo transfers will be performed by staff wearing plastic gowns, face masks and gloves. The faceless nature or wearing masks is something we are all getting used to, but it is here to stay.
There have been significant regional variations in the numbers of Covid-19 cases across the UK in recent months. The government’s ‘test, trace and isolate’ system alongside regional restrictions has not managed to stop the ‘R’ rate from rising or curb the progression of the virus. NHS hospitals are yet again at risk of oversaturation and being unable to cope.
London has the highest number of fertility clinics in the UK. Its population stands at just over 9 million and London saw some of the highest numbers of Coronavirus cases in the first wave. In recent weeks though the number of covid-19 cases in London have been significantly lower than other parts of the country. We projected that London would be hardest hit if there was a second wave of the virus, but the North of England has so far been more widely affected. London is twice as densely packed though as any other city in the UK so it is surely just a matter of time before the cases numbers rise across the whole of England.
Can a second lockdown avert a winter crisis? The months ahead are going to be challenging for the National Health Service. The NHS has been running at a reduced capacity for many months, struggling to restart services safely without compromising care or risking higher infectivity rates. Many fertility clinics are stand-alone private clinics responsible for a mixture of NHS and private fertility treatments. However, some fertility clinics are located in NHS buildings and there will be uncertainty as to whether they all remain open. There will certainly be regional variations in clinics remaining open and possibly a different level of services in some areas than others.
As many of us have learnt already there is so much that can be achieved virtually with current technology. Real success has been seen in many clinics already with virtual consultations, patient information evenings and tours of the IVF units done through video conferencing and webinars. The lessons of Covid-19 have been vast for all of us globally.
It can be a lonely and stressful time when you are going through fertility treatment. Waiting for even just a few days in a fertility journey can feel like months. The emotion and pain of subfertility does not fade during a global coronavirus pandemic. There is no escaping this and for many the stress will have been heightened. Whilst the flow of people through a clinic needs to be minimised to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, clinics must not neglect the human emotions that come with IVF. The interaction of meeting and speaking with friendly staff throughout your fertility treatment is important.
There are so many aspects to consider in a fertility treatment journey from the physical to the emotional and of course communication between staff and patients is key. As the months roll by with our new way of working it seems social distancing is here to stay. The progressive and innovative fertility clinics will be the ones that continue to adapt and find new ways to engage with their patients and ensure the Mental Health and Wellbeing remains centre stage as the pandemic continues.
You may be wondering whether IVF treatments will stop altogether. Of course there is no way of knowing this for certain, but in the light of a recent surge in Covid-19 cases there was encouraging news from the HFEA. Peter Thompson the Chief Executive of the HFEA sent encouraging news for us all in mid-October. The HFEA view is that the arrangements in place in across UK fertility clinics should be enough to avoid a further cessation of fertility treatments as happened in March and April. This is perhaps the silver lining to what has been a rather gloomy year.