The UK could face a rise in STI cases once the lockdown ends, a sexual health doctor has warned.
As restrictions ease and people’s behaviour begins to return to normal, Dr John McSorley, president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), predicts we could see the return of high rates of STIs.
Dr McSorley says the UK entered the COVID-19 pandemic with some of the highest rates of STIs – such as gonorrhoea, syphillis and chlamydia – the nation has seen for decades.
Diagnoses of gonorrhoea had risen by 249% and syphilis by 165% over the last decade, according to a State of the Nation report from the Terence Higgins Trust (THT) and BASHH in February 2020.
Since then, COVID-19 restrictions have prevented people from meeting up with others from outside their homes and this has had an impact on the number of STIs diagnosed.
“People, particularly young people did stop circulating,” Dr McSorley tells Yahoo UK. “At the same time, many clinics and GP surgeries necessarily had to reduce their services.”
“We know that the number of infections diagnosed have gone down in each lockdown. However, we also know that the infections haven’t gone away.”
Watch: Warnings over untreatable strains of gonorrhoea.
Dr McSorley points out that many sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, don’t have symptoms, meaning those infected may not know they have the condition.
“The reality is that there’s been a reduction in people coming for a routine checkups, and/or getting tested when they have no symptoms,” he explains.
“That is a problem because if we’re only dealing with the people who have symptoms, we’re not testing, finding or treating the people who have the infections, but don’t yet have symptoms.
“The problems haven't gone away, some of the challenges have just been hidden by COVID.”
Dr McSorley has raised concerns that as lockdown restrictions begin to ease, the UK could see the return of high rates of STIs.
“It has been amazing how well the UK population have responded to the requirements during lockdown,” he says.
“But the reality is that not having sex for very long periods of time isn’t normal. When people get advice that they can now start to circulate again, absolutely what we would expect to happen is that people will start to have sex again.”
Dr McSorley predicts we might then start to see people acquiring infections again or being diagnosed for infections which they haven’t been coming forward to get checked during lockdown.
“We certainly saw this after the first lockdown last year,” he explains, before pointing out that between March and June 2020 the number of people coming to his clinics dropped by about 50-60%.
“But by the end of the year we were seeing more people in December by comparison to the year before,” he adds.
“What that tells us is that as relaxations come through we would expect things to go back to normal.”
Dr McSorley now wants to urge people to use the lockdown productively to get themselves tested to help stop the spread of STIs once coronavirus restrictions have eased.
“There are better online services available for many people,” he says. “So the next few weeks, could be the opportunity to get your sexual health sorted.”
Dr McSorley suggests people explore accessing online testing systems, which are usually free through the NHS.
People can find their local local Sexual Health Service via the NHS Clinic Finder.
Each clinic will have a website that will direct you to the online testing availability for your local area.
“There’s been expansion of online access testing and treatment for STIs,” Dr McSorley explains.
“In particular, the NHS has put a lot of effort into creating the digital services. People can go online and they can order their home testing kits.
There may some local restrictions on availability and eligibility, but McSorely adds: “We understand that >95% of the population will now have an online access option if they google their local sexual health services”.
He says this is “a big improvement compared to last year”.
“Last year, this time it might have been 20%,” he adds.
The online assessments will take each person through a questionnaire to help them decide what tests are relevant for them.
Dr McSorley suggests the main conditions to get checked for would be chlamydia and gonorrhoea via a self taken swab or urine test.
“People may also want to sign up for a self taken finger prick blood test for HIV and Syphilis (if that service is available; [it’s] not quite everywhere),” he adds.
Dr McSorley also recommends people could use the remaining time in lockdown to look into contraception options, which could also help stop STI spread once coronavirus socialising restrictions come to an end.
“There are some very good online services that will make people aware of all the contraception services and options that are available,” he says.
“In the next two months or so, we will likely be partially released from these restrictions, and might be thinking about going out again, so now might be a good time to get tested and get sorted.”
Further advice and information
GP practices and sexual health services across the UK are open
Telephone first to speak to a Doctor or Nurse. They may arrange to see you later if needed.
For advice on sexual health, contraception and how to access services:
The National Sexual Health Helpline 0300 123 7123
Online sexual health services include:
NHS Services will be free and confidential