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Fertility treatment and COVID-19: lessons from, and for, lockdown

2 November 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1070

This year has seen a variety of measures and restrictions – the most stringent and fiercely debated being 'lockdowns' – introduced around the world in order to address the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, England is due to enter a lockdown which is expected to last for at least a month. What will this mean for fertility patients?

Authorities in England hope to avoid mandatory closure of clinics, of the sort that was imposed during a previous lockdown. The country's fertility regulator – the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) – has said that there are currently 'no plans to implement a national closure of fertility clinics', but has noted that 'we expect all clinics to demonstrate how their service can be safely maintained and how they can minimise any possible further impact on the wider NHS'.

There are important lessons to be learned from the UK's previous lockdown, as well as from the experiences of other countries, when it comes to supporting fertility patients through these challenging times. That is why this coming Thursday (5 November) – the day that England's new lockdown measures are expected to begin – the Progress Educational Trust (PET) will be holding a free-to-attend online event, from 5pm-6.30pm (GMT), entitled 'Lessons from Lockdown: How to Improve Support for Fertility Patients'.

At this event, we will begin by looking back at early April 2020, when UK fertility clinics closed their doors. This disrupted and delayed the treatment of thousands of patients. An atmosphere of uncertainty prevailed, with little clarity as to when treatments could resume, how waiting lists and funding arrangements would be affected, or how patients would be prioritised once clinics reopened.

This situation added to the stress and anxiety experienced by many patients. Infertility can be associated with a sense of lack of control, even at the best of times, and for some patients this feeling was intensified during and after lockdown.

Things improved in May, when the HFEA issued guidance allowing clinics to begin reopening if they could meet certain criteria (see BioNews 1045). Even then, however, the situation was inconsistent across the UK. Some patients were able to resume treatment almost immediately, while others grew increasingly frustrated because they were unable to access information, make plans or receive adequate support.

Thursday's event – which we are producing in partnership with University College London's EGA Institute for Women's Health, with sponsorship from CooperSurgical – will explore questions including:

  • What have been the greatest concerns and anxieties of fertility patients during the recent period?

  • What support do fertility patients need in such circumstances? And what support have they actually received?

  • What lessons should be taken on board by fertility clinics, policymakers and others, as we enter another lockdown?

  • How can fertility patients best be supported in relation to COVID-19? Or in the event of a different disease pandemic? Or in any such period of widespread disruption and uncertainty?

To help us answer these questions, we will hear from academics who have led research into fertility patients' experiences of the pandemic (Professor Jacky Boivin and Dr Zeynep Gurtin), from a patient and advocate whose own fertility treatment has been disrupted (Seetal Savla), and from a fertility counsellor who has been supporting patients during this difficult period (Carmel Dennehy).

All are welcome to attend Thursday's event. Find out more here, and register for your free place here.

After this week, we will continue exploring these issues at PET's annual conference, which – for the first time – we will be holding entirely online. The conference is entitled 'Fertility, Genomics and COVID-19', and is taking place from 9.15am-5.30pm (GMT) on Wednesday 9 December.

The conference will open with a session entitled 'The Impact of COVID-19 on the Fertility Sector', where speakers will include the chair of the HFEA (Sally Cheshire), the chair of the British Fertility Society (Dr Jane Stewart) and a leading figure in medical ethics (Professor Julian Savulescu).

The conference will close with a session entitled 'Resuming Treatment: What Can European Countries Learn from One Another?', featuring an international lineup of speakers (Dr Anna Veiga, Dr Luca Gianaroli, Dr Edgar Mocanu and Dr Nathalie Vermeulen) from the COVID-19 Working Group of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.

The conference's other sessions are detailed in the full timetable, and many other speakers are listed in the full lineup. Register to attend here, and note that the Institute of Medical Ethics has provided funding for 20 medical students to attend the conference free of charge – to apply for one of these places, please email sstarr@progress.org.uk.

As with all of PET's public events, Thursday's 'Lessons from Lockdown' event and next month's 'Fertility, Genomics and COVID-19' conference will devote substantial time to letting you put questions and comments to the speakers. At our online events, you have the additional option of making contributions either identifiably or anonymously.

2020 continues to be a turbulent year, but PET is more determined than ever to provide you with a wide variety of information, opinion and opportunities for discussion. See details of all our upcoming events here, and if you are able to do so, please support our efforts by becoming a registered Friend of PET.

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