One in three women does not know how to access contraception because their normal means of doing so have been cut off in the coronavirus crisis, according to research, as providers warn that women face a “postcode lottery” of services.
Marie Stopes, a leading UK abortion provider that polled 1,000 women, said those needing contraception have been “disgracefully neglected” during the public health emergency.
Frontline service providers warn that increasing numbers of women are getting pregnant because of difficulties in obtaining contraception.
Researchers found that more than one-third of the women who attempted to access a contraceptive service thought the provision had become worse since the lockdown.
Tracey Forsyth, lead contraceptive nurse at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the UK’s largest abortion provider, told The Independent she had come across many women struggling to obtain contraception during the pandemic.
She said: “I’m talking to lots of women who are now pregnant because they couldn’t get their contraception. Me and my team are talking to 20 a day. Lots of them are having an abortion. They’ll say things like, 'I couldn’t get my pill because I was told it wasn’t the doctor’s priority.’ It’s very upsetting for these women.
“They wanted to use the contraceptive pill. They say, ‘Why is me not wanting an unplanned pregnancy not their priority?’ It has been an absolute nightmare for women. With women having to take on extra childcare and homeschooling, not being able to get contraception is another added problem to problems they have got already.
“It was bad before Covid because of cuts to services and restructuring of clinics in the wake of Tory austerity. A lot of women tell us their clinics closed down in their areas before Covid. But the struggle to get contraception has got worse since the pandemic.”
Marie Stopes said the combination of services focusing on the coronavirus outbreak and the “chronic underfunding” of sexual health services during the last decade has damaged providers, warning that it is young women and girls who have faced the worst impact.
A spokesperson for the charity said: “Women have had their usual routes to get contraception in the wake of the coronavirus crisis shut down due to some GPs not taking appointments, sexual health clinics closing, and GPs not prioritising contraception due to being overwhelmed with working on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis."
Suzi, from London, was left fearing that she would get an infection or become pregnant because of problems accessing contraception during the pandemic.
The 29-year-old said: “I was meant to have my hormonal coil removed in March as it had run out, but then we went into lockdown. My local sexual health clinic said they weren’t doing any non-urgent procedures and that it would cover me until March 2021. I was worried about it not working or getting infected, but I wasn’t sure what to do after they said they couldn’t remove it or where else to go, so I just had to hope it would be OK.
“I recently found out that I can get my coil removed at the GP surgery, but they won’t put a new one in so I will have to go on the contraceptive pill – which I don’t really want to do. The nurse who advised me also told that it was untrue my coil would last until March 2021 and I should be using other contraception such as pills or condoms.
“I don’t want to get pregnant, especially during a global pandemic and it’s really confusing being passed from pillar to post when I’m trying to be responsible and keep myself protected.”
Researchers found that almost half of women polled are keen for healthcare services to provide longer supplies of pills and condoms.
Julia Hogan, lead contraceptive nurse for Marie Stopes, said: “Women’s need for contraception does not stop during an emergency, but once again women and girls have been disgracefully neglected. Many have been left confused about where they can access contraceptive services during Covid-19, unable to use the method of their choice or, worryingly, unable to access a service at all.
"All too often, our teams speak to women who have become pregnant while on contraception waiting lists."
Beth, a 29-year-old from London, said: “I had persistent and recurring thrush since I had the copper coil in and felt that there was a link. I was repeatedly told by my GP that it wasn’t the case despite having read contradicting information online. It was frustrating not being listened to.
“Following more problems during lockdown, I requested to get it removed. I initially had to wait as I was told they weren’t doing non-emergency appointments, but I then managed to find an appointment at a sexual health clinic.
“I wish there was more information around contraception, how to access it and where. It feels like women’s sexual health and contraception isn’t considered a priority when it should be."
Caroline Gazet, clinical director for Marie Stopes, argued that a dearth of investment in contraceptive services has created a “postcode lottery of care”.
She said: “With poor access and unacceptable waits, particularly for the most effective long-acting methods like the implant and coil, women are then shamed if they need to access abortion care. The global pandemic has only exacerbated how difficult it can already be for women to access contraception when they need it most."
The Independent reported in April that women were struggling to access their usual methods of contraception because sexual health services had been plunged into chaos in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.