Message from the ARCS Executive

We live in unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic has, in the space of a few short weeks, massively impacted upon the lives of everyone in the United Kingdom and beyond. We know from the experience of other countries such as Italy that the National Health Service is going to be stretched to breaking point by the sheer number of infected patients requiring respiratory support and/or hospital care. With this in mind the NHS has taken steps to cancel all scheduled care and massively reduce the burden of non-essential work. There is now a national effort to stem the spread of the virus and save lives. It was with this in mind that the ARCS and BFS executives took the decision to advise the closure of all Fertility clinics in the U.K. to routine treatments. This decision was subsequently endorsed by the HFEA, most recently through the publication of General Direction 0014. At the same time ARCS has advised the cessation of all non-essential diagnostic activity, both in HFEA licenced centres and other laboratories where our members undertake these tests. I can assure members that this was not a decision that was taken lightly, and certainly not something that anyone ever envisaged would be necessary. By effectively shutting the sector down to all but urgent (e.g. oncology preservation) cases, we are ensuring that the impact of the treatments that we deliver on the NHS is minimised. Releasing vital NHS resources at this time of national emergency will undoubtedly save lives- it would have been unconscionable for the sector to continue to undertake ‘business as usual’ at this time as complications from our treatments would block beds. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our members who are currently reducing services to this end, it is a credit to the field that so many have reacted so quickly and definitively to the crisis.

The ARCS Exec are acutely conscious that this is a time of great anxiety and stress in the sector. Many of those who work in NHS centres will face redeployment to help in the fight against the pandemic, whilst those who work in the private sector will be anxious about finances and job security. ARCS are monitoring the situation closely and will do everything possible to help and advise members in these difficult times. To this end we have set up a dedicated e-mail contact address for members to raise queries and concerns (advice@arcscientists.org) for the Exec to try to address. In addition a forum will be created on the website to allow members to stay in touch and share concerns and problems with colleagues.

Whilst the national emergency is at the forefront of everyone’s minds right now, we have to remember that we continue to have an overriding professional obligation to ensure the safety of our patients, staff and the gametes and embryos under our care. With regard to patients, gametes and embryos, we would ask members to please ensure that systems are in place to advise and counsel patients throughout the crisis. It is also important that triage systems are developed to guarantee that couples with the greatest need are treated first once the sector opens again. Most importantly, it is essential that our gamete and embryo cryo-storage facilities are protected and continue to function normally. All centres must ensure that sufficient scientific staff are available at all times to secure the safety of stored gametes and embryos and should undertake risk assessments to this end. Although treatment numbers will be small, essential equipment maintenance and quality control remain a priority. Supply chain for essential consumables should be considered. Supply chain for liquid nitrogen is a particular concern. Currently suppliers are advising that they do not foresee any issues and that they are prioritising the health service. As an added insurance policy, we are asking that any Centres with LN2 generators contact ARCS on the e-mail address above so that a national map of LN2 production facilities can be developed. Further advice from ARCS on this issue will follow.

With regard to staff. ARCS members should determine, with their managers and (where applicable) the Person Responsible for their centre how to maintain sufficient scientific staff to undertake the duties detailed above. Assessments of necessary staff numbers should account for a large portion of the workforce self-isolating through COVID-19 themselves or because members of their household are potentially infected. We are conscious that some smaller centres may find staffing difficult please contact ARCS through advice@arcscientists.org if you foresee any problems- should the need arise it is our intention to co-ordinate the temporary deployment of Scientists to affected centres to ensure the ongoing safety of patients and cryopreserved material. We would encourage those members employed in the private sector and others who find their duties are temporarily suspended, to consider volunteering to help the NHS in its time of need, further details of how to do this can be obtained at https://www.goodsamapp.org/NHS.

Those members who are in education or training can rest assured that ARCS will take a flexible approach during the crisis and those who cannot, through no fault of their own, complete training to previously agreed timescales will not be held accountable. STP trainees should review the National School of Healthcare Science website for updates on the status of their training and rotations.

Finally, whilst we arguably face the greatest challenge to our society since the Second World War, it is important that the sector maintains some hope for the future and plans for it. For the sake of our patients, it is essential that we plan for a streamlined and rapid return to service once the current emergency has abated.

Wishing you all well at this difficult time.

Jason Kasraie on behalf of the ARCS Executive Committee