The closure of fertility clinics as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has proved distressing for those undergoing fertility treatment. The announcement on 1 May 2020 that fertility clinics can apply to reopen from 11 May 2020 has brought fresh hope to fertility patients. Matt Hancock, the health secretary said "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."
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has confirmed that in order for clinics to reopen from this date, they must meet strict COVID-19 safety requirements. This will require clinics to be able to demonstrate that they can provide a safe service for patients and safe working environment for clinic staff compliant with recommendations from professional guidance. Prior to clinics resuming treatment, they must have a COVID-19 treatment strategy in place. It may not therefore be possible for all clinics to reopen effective from 11 May 2020, if safety requirements have not been met.
There have also been calls on NHS clinical commissioning groups to loosen age restrictions for women affected by the lockdown delays. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) advises that NHS patients aged 40 and under are able to have three rounds of IVF, and women aged 40 to 42 can have one round provided certain criteria is met.
In further recognition of the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic in respect to fertility treatment the Government has also confirmed that the current 10-year storage limit for embryos and gametes will be extended by 2 years. Health Minister, Lord Bethell, commented "We are taking steps to ensure during these extraordinary times, those that have embryos, sperm or eggs stored as part of their treatment are not unfairly caught out by the existing storage limits and have the best possible opportunity to start their family in the future." The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority are due to issue guidelines to fertility clinics across the UK in order to provide support in implementing the new storage limit extension.
The announcement coincides with a wider public consultation which was already underway and launched by Department of Health and Social Care in February 2020 on gamete and embryo storage limits. Prior to the recent extension and as a result of legislation enacted in 1990, the maximum storage period for embryos and gametes was 10 years. That maximum 10 year storage period can be extended for up to a maximum storage period of 55 years, provided that certain premature infertility criteria are demonstrated at any time within each 10-year period. As a result of developments in fertility treatment and the significant improvements in freezing technology, questions have been raised as to whether the 1990 legislation remains fit for purpose. The 2 year extension to storage limits in light of the COVID-19 pandemic is nevertheless a step forward as the wider public consultation continues.
Whilst these developments have been welcomed by fertility patients, there remain questions particularly for those facing age-related fertility issues and as to the legal considerations for fertility preservation - it is hoped these will continue to be addressed.
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