Pin It
Morning after pill
Photography Benjamin Moss, via Unsplash

No surprises: the morning after pill has been harder to access in lockdown

Sexual health services have suffered amid coronavirus quarantine, with emergency contraception sales dropping by half between March and April

Women’s access to vital contraception and sexual health services has always been difficult. There’s often long waiting lists for appointments, women can be subjected to invasive questioning, and the morning after pill comes with a hefty price tag. Unsurprisingly, all of these problems have been exacerbated in lockdown, as services across the UK were “rolled back” by decades due to the pandemic.

Now, new figures show that access to emergency contraception has been so hard in quarantine that sales fell by 50 per cent from March to April, while NHS prescriptions for the pills dropped by 20 per cent.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said the statistics prove that the morning after pill is too difficult to access, and should be available in supermarkets without a consultation.

“We know that women are experiencing barriers when trying to access their usual methods of contraception,” the charity said in a statement. “As a result of this, we are seeing an increase in women seeking abortion care since lockdown was introduced. In order to protect women’s ability to prevent pregnancy during COVID-19, emergency contraception should be reclassified. This would ensure women could buy medication directly from the shelf from pharmacies.”

UK retail data from researcher Information Resources Incorporated (IRI) showed that sales of emergency contraception fell from 38,553 in March to 18,500 in April, rising again to 23,918 in May. 

Currently, although women in the UK can obtain the morning after pill for free from GP surgeries or walk-in clinics, most of those in need buy it over the counter from pharmacies, which can cost up to £26. In November last year, an online pharmacy began selling emergency contraception for just £3, proving that high street stores are grossly overcharging.

“Women are still having to pay vastly over the odds for this pill at their time of need,” Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at BPS, told The Telegraph at the time. “There is simply no reason why we should restrict access in the way we do when the stakes for women are so high – women know when they need it, and should be trusted to use it.”

Due to the lack of easy access to emergency contraception, experts fear there will be a rise in unplanned pregnancies. BPAS, which carries out a third of abortions in the UK, has seen a 15 per cent increase in consultations since April. After a confusing back-and-forth about abortion access, the UK confirmed it was temporarily changing the law in March to allow women to take two abortion pills at home. Those in Northern Ireland, however, must still take one at the clinic.

Other sexual health services have also been harder to access in lockdown, with a recent survey showing that 77 per cent of GPs were forced to end or limit specialised care. Most women using the coil or implant have had their appointments to change or fit the device cancelled, while others have seen potentially urgent smear tests postponed.

“The pandemic has highlighted that contraceptive services need sustainable investment,” Dr Anne Lashford, vice president of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH), told Dazed last month. “Funding and commissioning challenges have led to an overstretched and underfunded sexual and reproductive healthcare service that was not sustainably supported to provide care to women and girls either before or during a pandemic.”

As well as limiting access to contraception, lockdown has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. Last month, a Plan International UK survey revealed that the pandemic has worsened girls’ mental health, reduced their ability to afford or access period products, and heightened public sexual harassment. Domestic abuse has also been on the rise in quarantine, with Refuge reporting a 700 per cent increase in calls to its helpline in a single day.

“We are concerned that this pandemic could set us back still further on the path to gender equality,” Rose Caldwell, Plan International UK’s CEO, told Dazed in May. “There is an urgent need for policy makers in the UK to ensure girls’ voices are heard throughout this crisis and afterwards, especially girls who are vulnerable and often the least heard.”