The initial response to COVID-19 in the UK involved a rapid contraction of face-to-face sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services and widespread use of remote workarounds. This study sought to illuminate young people’s experiences of accessing and using condoms and contraception in the early months of the pandemic.
We analysed data, including open-text responses, from an online survey conducted in June–July 2020 with a convenience sample of 2005 16–24-year-olds living in Scotland.
Among those who used condoms and contraception, one quarter reported that COVID-19 mitigation measures had made a difference to their access or use. Open-text responses revealed a landscape of disrupted prevention, including changes to sexual risk-taking and preventive practices, unwanted contraceptive pathways, unmet need for sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing, and switches from freely provided to commercially sold condoms and contraception. Pandemic-related barriers to accessing free condoms and contraception included: (1) uncertainty about the legitimacy of accessing SRH care and self-censorship of need; (2) confusion about differences between SRH care and advice received from healthcare professionals during the pandemic compared with routine practice; and (3) exacerbation of existing access barriers, alongside reduced social support and resources to navigate SRH care.
Emerging barriers to STI and pregnancy prevention within the context of COVID-19 have the potential to undermine positive SRH practices, and widen inequalities, among young people. As SRH services are restored amid evolving pandemic restrictions, messaging to support navigation of condom and contraception services should be co-created with young people.