April 16, 2020 - 7:00am

Today all fertility treatment in the UK stops by order of the regulator, the HEFA (Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority). New treatments, including sperm donor insemination, were stopped in March, which was bad enough for those who had saved up, planned and pinned their hopes on a timely treatment plan. But as of yesterday, even those in the middle of an IVF cycle will have the door shut in their face. A grim announcement on the HEFA website reads:

We understand this is a difficult time for patients and clinics with all fertility treatment being stopped… Any decision will need to consider the views of the UK professional societies (BFS/ARCS), the impact that resuming treatment would have on NHS services, and general guidance from Government designed to slow the spread of Covid-19 on safe distancing and the movement of people.

Time is the very essence of fertility treatment and yet this po-faced message shows utter disregard for it. Its hollow opening line about ‘a difficult time’ doesn’t offer solutions: only vague, schoolmarmish talk about the NHS coming first and social distancing. Women, told that every week, even every day, matters for conception, are now to wait until ‘the impact… on NHS services’ is deemed manageable. How this ‘impact’ is measured, or has ever been measured, is not clarified. How long is a piece of string?

And what exactly is meant by ‘pressure’? I spoke to a senior NHS manager friend about this last night: neither she nor I could see how fertility services, especially private ones (also banned) put undue pressure on the NHS, when patients are dealt with in specialised clinics. Are fertility patients more likely to spread Covid-19? Are fertility clinics particularly infectious places? Unlikely.

If a crisis in women’s mental health isn’t enough, there is another hypocritical aspect to the ban. Our whole lives have been reshaped around preventing deaths from Covid-19. But in causing untold pain and stress by halting all fertility treatment, the HEFA has also put the kibosh on thousands of new lives. Indeed if the present shut-down goes on for a year, 20,000 desperately wanted babies will not be born. That also happens to be the high end of estimates for Covid-19 related deaths in the UK.

For every day of single-minded focus on the virus to the exclusion of all else, more painful side effects emerge. This decision will be a blow for thousands of women. And for a body purporting to be concerned with public health and saving lives it seems shamefully short-sighted.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)