The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has ordered all ongoing fertility treatment in the UK to stop.
The mandatory directive came into force on 15 April 2020 and applies to both NHS and private fertility clinics. Alongside the announcement, HFEA Chair Sally Cheshire directly addressed fertility patients in an open letter published on the HFEA website and in BioNews (see BioNews 1040).
She recognised that the news was 'very distressing', but added that stopping fertility treatments is 'the only responsible course of action for the fertility sector and patients at this tough time'.
Previously, the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) issued guidance saying that women 'should avoid becoming pregnant at this time' due to the ongoing coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic (see BioNews 1040). The British Fertility Society (BFS) and the Association of Reproductive and Clinical Scientists (ARCS) advised the same, citing the promotion of social distancing and lack of long-term evidence on coronavirus and pregnancy.
The guidance had already prohibited new procedures starting, and advised on-going treatments to cease. However, the new, stronger measures have banned any treatment from continuing. It will affect all patients hoping to undergo fertility treatment in the UK, of which there were 54,760 in 2017 according to the latest figures published by the HFEA.
Dr Catherine Hill, from the Progress Educational Trust (PET), the charity that publishes BioNews, told the Observer 'You can't rewind your biological clock... Time is of the essence when it comes to fertility treatment. For some people, this shutdown means they never become parents.'
Some patients feel the ban discriminates against people with fertility issues. One patient and her partner told the Daily Mail: 'Many women will get pregnant naturally over the next few months and no one is telling them they can't or mustn't do so. We don't believe it's fair.'
The measures are particularly significant for older patients planning fertility treatment. Currently, NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) do not allow fertility treatment for those over the age of 42, while private clinics typically set an age limit of 45. This is because the chance of successful pregnancy decreases with age.
The indefinite nature of the directive means some patients will have surpassed the age limit by the time the restrictions are lifted. Speaking to the Observer, one patient in her early forties relayed that her IVF cycle was cancelled minutes before she attended her first scan. 'I broke down. I'm aware that every day, at my age, my eggs diminish,' she said.