It’s impossible not to sense panic and confusion. As the number of coronavirus cases and deaths rise globally, we are all attempting to accept a new normal, support our loved ones and abide by government rules. It’s a lot to handle.
We’re adjusting to self-isolation and social distancing, but that doesn’t mean the questions stop.
If I fall ill when should I seek medical attention? Can my cat get it? My family lives abroad… when will I next see my parents? Also on that list: contraception.
When the virus began to take hold in Britain, I was weeks away from the expiration of my intrauterine device (IUD), which prevents pregnancy for up to five years. It’s not a matter of life or death, but there was a risk of infection if left in too long. Serious infections can cause infertility.
Last week I called my GP. No answer. Online bookings? Down.
I eventually secured an appointment at a local sexual health clinic in North London – and just in time.
“Thank God you came into today,” my nurse said.
The clinic closed at the end of the day. She explained that staff were being transferred to a larger clinic in the centre of town. “Patients will still be seen, but there may be fewer appointments… and we could be pulled into coronavirus patient care,” she told me.
According to the latest NHS statistics, care relating to contraception was administered 1.4 million times by the UK’s sexual health or reproductive services in 2018 and 2019 – from smear tests to general health advice. During that time there was a 44 per cent rise in long-acting reversible contraceptives (like an IUD or injection), and a 39 per cent uptake of the contraceptive pill.
With talk of a coronavirus baby boom nine months down the line doing the rounds on social media – the new generation has already been dubbed ‘Coronials’ – access to contraception is on women’s minds.
We’ve already seen mixed messaging around access to abortion medication, so what should we expect when it comes to contraception and invasive procedures like smear tests, coil insertion or removal, or STI testing?
While each GP and sexual health clinic is feeling the pull of the lockdown differently, here are some general guidelines to ensure you’re getting the sexual health care you need:
Should you carry on with scheduled procedures?
At all times follow the latest government guidance on self-isolation if you have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who may have coronavirus, says Professor Claudia Estcourt, a consultant physician and spokesperson for the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV.
“If so, do not attend medical care settings even if you have a scheduled appointment. Instead, call the clinic and let them know. Otherwise, if your clinic is still offering to see you for any type of care needed, assume it is safe to do so.”
But there is a chance routine appointments like smear tests are less likely to go ahead.
“Healthcare providers are focusing on emergencies and the most vulnerable,” says Jackie Redding, a spokesperson for Brook, a national charity for wellbeing and sexual health. “There are some services available to order online that come by post, including some STI tests.”
Will some sexual health clinics be closing?
Some services may need to close and shift care to larger centralised clinics, where staff can be pooled. Overall, there will undoubtedly be fewer appointments, however many clinics are offering telephone consultations, Professor Estcourt says.
“If your clinic is still offering to see you for the type of care you need, consider the factors you need to put into place. This includes social distancing, travel, childcare and not having an accompanying person with you.”
People are strongly urged to use condoms especially during this time as sexual health services may not be readily available.
How can I book a new appointment during the coronavirus lockdown?
When in doubt, check the NHS website for the latest information. You’ll find a list of sexual health services available at your local clinic here.
What does the lockdown mean for pill prescriptions?
If you know you will run out of the Pill (or your usual contraceptive method) in the next few weeks you should call your GP or local sexual health provider.
“Services are variable across the country,” Redding says. “GPs and sexual health services like Brook can all prescribe the Pill.”
While some services are offering a pick-up service, you can also buy contraceptive pills via online paid-for services such as Fettle.
“If this isn’t possible, it is essential that you use condoms,” Redding says.
Undoubtedly the ways in which you get care will change – and will probably be less flexible. “Many services are exploring alternative options too – including postal pharmacies,” Professor Estcourt adds.
How will women access emergency contraception?
If you need emergency contraception – or the ‘morning-after pill’ – do not delay in seeking help.
“Pharmacies are still open to provide emergency contraception, as well as sexual health services – make sure you ring in advance to check they’re open and to book an appointment,” Redding says.
If you are self-isolating or cannot access a service, you can buy emergency contraception online through services like Fettle. Please look at your clinic’s website to see what is available locally.
Read more: Are doctors surgeries and dentists still open? How coronavirus impacts your day-to-day health appointments