The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) is calling on Government to support the ‘restoration’ of sexual health services in both the community and primary care following lockdown.

This comes as annual data, published by NHS Digital yesterday (23 September), suggested that sexual health services were accessed less throughout both lockdowns than in previous years.

According to the data, which looked into sexual and reproductive healthcare over the past year (April 2020 -March 2021), uptake of the contraceptive pill had fallen by 42% compared to last year.

Similarly, there was an 18% decline in the number of emergency contraception (EC) items — which include both the morning-after pill and IUDs — given out by GPs and pharmacists compared to 2019-20.

In community sexual health clinics there were 45% fewer EC items given out over the same period.

Dr Asha Kasliwal, FSRH president, said that although a reduction in sexual health services over the course of the pandemic was ‘expected’, she urged the Government to reinvest in sexual health services urgently.

‘Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a fall in contraception-related contacts in the period. Despite tireless work by doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to guarantee minimum levels of provision, Covid-19 has hit contraceptive services hard,’ she said.

‘As our members have been telling us, walk-in services for young people have been particularly affected, with data showing a notable decline in emergency contraception items provided to under-16s in community SRH services,’ she also explained.

‘We urge the Department of Health and Social Care to support the restoration of SRH services in the community and primary care. We strongly call on the Department to tackle immediate and long-standing barriers to equitable contraceptive provision in the upcoming national Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy.’

She added: ‘Covid-19 will continue to put unprecedented pressure on public service budgets. We urge the Government to provide the sustainable long-term investment that contraceptive services urgently need.’

In July, the UK medicine regulator approved two progestogen-only pills for sale without a prescription from pharmacies.

Last week, BBC Three reported the cases of three females under the age of 18 who said they had each been refused the morning-after pill at community pharmacies. All three claimed they were refused EHC by the pharmacists for no reason, with no alternative suggested and without being signposted elsewhere.

Speaking to The Pharmacist, Dr Kasliwal said she appreciated that within a diverse body of pharmacists there may be ‘conflicts of interest’ for some between their personal beliefs and dispensing emergency contraception.

However, she stressed that all pharmacists have a responsibility to ensure all women have access to emergency contraception, despite personal beliefs.

Guidance published by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) in 2017 said that pharmacists who do refuse to give out EHC must organise a referral to another health professional ‘if appropriate'.