The Government has announced that fertility clinics are able to apply to reopen from 11 May.
Health minister Matt Hancock made the announcement during the daily press briefing on the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic on 1 May:
'Now that we are past the peak, I am delighted to announce the restoration of fertility services. People who are relying on fertility treatment have been worried during these unprecedented times not knowing when they could continue their journey to start a family. We wanted to open these clinics as soon as it was safe to do so,' he said.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) ordered all ongoing NHS and private fertility treatment in the UK to stop on 15 April (seeBioNews 1043).
However, this delay to fertility treatment may mean that some patients will no longer meet the NHS age requirements. Tim Child, medical director of the Fertility Partnership and associate professor at the University of Oxford, told The Times 'It's the uncertainty and the ticking clock which are causing anxiety and upset… We have written to clinical commissioning groups that we work with and most have agreed to extend the time limit to start treatment by six months.'
Approval from the HFEA must be obtained in order for a fertility clinic to reopen and recommence patient treatment. Each clinic that wishes to reopen must submit a written 'COVID-19 Treatment Commencement Strategy', detailing how the clinic will operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Risk assessments must be detailed, including new standard operation procedures and protocols incorporating physical social distancing in waiting rooms, all practical and logistical measures that will be taken, such as the use of suitable and personal protective equipment and the use of telephone appointments when necessary.
Clinics will not be able to recommence any treatment until formal approval from the HFEA has been granted.
Sally Cheshire chair of the HEFA told BioNews 'I am pleased that the HFEA has agreed fertility clinics can apply to reopen from 11 May. Our priority throughout the pandemic has been to consider how treatment could resume quickly and safely for as many patients as possible and our clear plan sets out how clinics can treat and care for patients safely during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic... I know that the closure of clinics has been extremely distressing for patients and this will be good news for those wanting to resume treatment and have the opportunity to try for their much longed-for family.'
However, clinics are not required to open or resume treatment by a certain date. This means that clinics can assess their individual circumstances and judge for themselves when they are able to provide a safe service and reopen.
It may be difficult for some clinics to reopen with staff re-deployed to frontline care and equipment sourced for other uses. This approach is designed to be consistent with plans announced by the Chief Executive of NHS England on 29 April, when local NHS trusts were asked to make their own judgment calls about whether they have the capacity and the safety to provide elective and non-urgent treatments once again.
Sarah Norcross, director of the Progress Educational Trust (PET) said: 'PET welcomes the Government's announcement that fertility clinics can apply to reopen to treat patients from Monday 11 May… Time is now of the essence in order to get clinics running again in a way that is safe for patients and staff and does not put a strain on other parts of the healthcare sector.'