Archive for July, 2020

Identifying and responding to populations who are vulnerable to poor sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has given rise to new context-driven vulnerabilities, emerging due to wide-scale changes to the delivery of sexual and reproductive healthcare and broader psychosocial impacts. We outline such vulnerabilities and actions for continuing to monitor and respond to their emergence.

New vulnerabilities emerging from changes to service delivery

Public health messages to reduce non-essential use of NHS services may have impacted SRH, with reports of cessation of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and contraception during early lockdown. Closure of some smaller SRH clinic services may disproportionately impact those who require face-to-face consultation but rely on service proximity. For example, those with physical or learning disabilities, or living in coastal and rural areas and reliant on public transport.

Remote delivery of SRH services has included telephone and digital-based approaches, combined with postal and pharmacy-delivered interventions. Expansion of online STI testing services may improve overall uptake, with public health messaging promoting testing during the pandemic. However, reliance on postal delivery and return may impact testing-to-treatment times, creating new vulnerabilities among those struggling with abstinence during this window. Those without a private postal address may also be deterred from using online services.

Lack of access to devices, telephone credit or the internet may also hinder remote service use. This may particularly affect those living in poverty or destitution; or those without the digital, literacy or English language skills needed to navigate online services. Remote access may also be hampered by privacy concerns, although anecdotal reports suggest that changes to remote early medical abortion provision have improved access. This has even been the case for those with abusive partners.

New vulnerabilities emerging from wider psychosocial impact

Difficulties in accessing SRH provision may interact with the wider psychosocial impacts of COVID-19. Ongoing school closures combined with the closure of walk-in clinics has left school-age adolescents reliant on online services, which may be difficult to access due to privacy issues. It is heartening that 76% of services that responded to the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV’s (BASHH) Clinical Thermometer survey ‘identified young people requiring face to face care as their top priority’ (1). This has been in response to reduced uptake among young people of adolescent age – distinct from those aged 20-24 years, amongst whom no decrease in uptake has been noted.

The risk of sexual exploitation has also increased, especially for adolescents, children, women, disabled people and those who identify as LGBTQ+ (2). Financial destitution may have increased the risk of transactional sex in exchange for food, shelter, drugs etc. Commercial sex workers, for whom sex work may be their only source of income, have been forced to make difficult decisions about continuing to work (3). Anecdotal evidence suggests that they are taking greater risks and are at increased risk of assault (4).

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increase in reports of domestic abuse (5), which may be fueled by financial hardship, reduced access to support networks and greater time spent at home (6). Opportunities to identify safeguarding concerns may be limited by the reduction in face-to-face services. Conversely, anecdotal reports suggest antenatal services may more effectively identify domestic abuse, as partners are not permitted to attend due to COVID-19.

Looking ahead

The collective efforts of all SRH stakeholders are vital to identify and respond to emerging new vulnerabilities, particularly as some service changes become the ‘new normal’. Equally, it is important to recognise and campaign to maintain changes in provision which have improved access and uptake. Data capture is vital to support both efforts. As a community we must remain flexible, and learn from each other. Improved telephone safeguarding skills, already implemented by some services, are vital. In addition, new measures to re-open some walk-in services and conversely enhance remote provision for complex cases ordinarily seen in clinics, may be necessary. We must continue to offer delivery choices and to identify and reduce barriers to care. Many who are facing new vulnerabilities are already rightly being recognised by BASHH as having priority for access to face-to-face care (1). It is critical that these new vulnerabilities are accounted for by commissioners and providers as services are restored and transformed.

Written by

Dr Ahimza Thirunavukarasu, [ST4 Public Health Registrar, London & South East Deanery] 

Dr Natalie Edelman, [Senior Research Fellow, School of Health Sciences, University of Brighton] 

Dr Natalie Daley, [ST4 Public Health Registrar, West Midlands Deanery]  

Natalie, Ahimza and Natalie are members of the FPH Sexual and Reproductive Health Special Interest Group.  







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Since the outset of the first industrial revolution, the West Midlands has built a track record of “can do” inventiveness and innovation. It’s what powers us to bounce back from adversity. Our region’s people are resilient and accustomed to working in ways we now call “agile”.

There is a determination to rebuild from this pandemic stronger than ever. As a mark of our ambition, the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, has put forward a £3bn package of urgent investment for the Government’s consideration. It proposes immediate action on everything from active travel to community health and wellbeing via 5G connectivity.

While big investments in active travel infrastructure and fuel poverty retrofit insulation of homes will undoubtedly have public health impacts, we are especially interested in the proposed Radical Health Prevention Fund. Here are plans for a £23 million investment in community-based health promotion and prevention of ill-health and community-based diagnostic centres. The intention behind putting forward these investments is to kick-start an upgrade in prevention work, with a focus on reaching groups in our society most at risk.

For us, recovering from COVID-19 means reconnecting with communities – rethinking how we live and work to protect our environment at the same time as we grow our economy. The potential for improving health and wellbeing and reducing inequalities is invigorating.

As the coronavirus response showed, we are fortunate to have an active, competent public health workforce able to work alongside key workers elsewhere in the system. Working with the NHS, local government, social care, voluntary sector and many more, they can and do target key drivers of health inequality.

The £10 million investment sought to equip public health with cutting edge advances in digital and data driven health will lead to a healthier workforce and more engaged citizens in the West Midlands.

Our recent experience has demonstrated just how much the public needs greater access to diagnostic and treatment services and our public health service needs access to the results faster. In our region there are significant health inequalities and there is a need to provide quicker access to diagnosis and treatment to those with life threatening conditions. This is an essential part of prevention, helping everyone to stay healthy longer and helping people of working age to remain in employment as long as possible. On both counts, the economy benefits, and quality of life is better.

We foresee people getting tests done in their daily commute or during their daily shop, with centres in everyday places like transport hubs and shopping centres. The proposed first location for a new centre combines both – the Grand Central retail complex above our busiest railway station.

The £13 million investment will help embed diagnostic and treatment services throughout the community and redefine care pathways to improve accessibility of screening.

We have come through a COVID-19 wave of infection at great cost – in lives lost, personal trauma and a broken economy. The future is unknowable, but we must be prepared for a second wave of this coronavirus or the next novel, unforeseen threat to the public’s health or the intensifying health risks associated with climate change.

In the past, our discussions around health have too often been limited to hospital patients and new treatments. In future, we want people to think and talk more about wider determinants of health, upstream interventions and preventive approaches as well. Only then will we fully embrace all the pillars of public health: health promotion, health protection and equitable access to healthcare supported by science, data and academic public health.

From now on, national and local agencies need to operate as one, seamless system, with Central Government working in collaboration with Local Government, local NHS organisations and local communities. Surely now, there must be a recognition of how inequality leads to increasingly unfair outcomes within our society – with no greater unfair impact than disproportionate rates of death.

The greater impact of the pandemic to date on those who are socioeconomically deprived or from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups has been stark. Resources must be directed to those communities that most need them. In future, we want to work to protect vulnerable groups by working with them, fully engaging communities in decision making and utilising the skills and expertise they offer.

In recovery from this gravest of threats, we have a second chance to get things right. That means taking this window of opportunity to step our efforts up not down. We must work together to get the funding right, the data sharing right, the contact tracing right and the involvement of local communities right. The West Midlands region will build on its unique heritage and distinctive strengths and seize the opportunity to reset, rebuild and recharge our region so we come back even stronger.


Written by

David Kidney – Chief Executive, UK Public Health Register and Executive Chair of the proposed West Midlands Health Technologies Cluster

Lisa McNally, Director of Public Health, Sandwell

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