Fewer people in Bedford accessed sexual health services during the coronavirus pandemic, figures suggest.
Experts say widespread disruption to the NHS and changes in behaviour may have contributed to a significant drop in people contacting sexual health clinics nationally during the pandemic.
NHS Digital figures show around 1,725 people approached sexual and reproductive health services in Bedford between April 2020 and March – down from 2,250 the year before.
Clinics in the area dealt with 2,865 contacts overall – with some people accessing SRH services more than once over the period.
A drastic fall in face-to-face appointments across England could have prevented people – especially teenagers – from accessing help and support with contraception, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, sexual health charities said.
The figures show that just 39 per cent of consultations held by clinics in Bedford in 2020-21 were face-to-face, compared to 99 per cent the year before.
Lisa Hallgarten, from sexual health charity Brook, said remote consultations could prove convenient for some, but highlighted difficulties in accessing care for those without a safe space at home.
She said: "Some will have found the ability to speak to a health care professional from home straightforward.
"Others may have struggled with finding private spaces at home for the conversations they needed, or may have found lack of data or Wi-Fi an obstacle to accessing the services they need."
The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV said young people living at home during lockdowns may have been particularly reluctant to access services.
A spokesperson said: "It is likely that people may not have felt able to have a private telephone call to discuss their needs with the clinic, may not have wanted to discuss with their parents why they were needing to leave the house and not felt comfortable receiving treatment or postal kits to their home address."
Services across the country also recorded a sharp 45 per cent% drop in the number of emergency contraceptives issued last year, with the rate of items given out falling most significantly among under-16s nationally.
Bedford clinics provided 110 emergency contraceptives in 2020-21, down from 115 the year before.
Of those, up to seven were given to teenagers aged between 13 and 15, down from 10 in 2019-20.
The figures do not include contraceptives accessed through other means, such as over the counter or through hospital outpatient clinics.
Ms Hallgarten said a national reduction in overall contraceptive uptake could reflect reduced sexual activity during lockdowns, but may also have been influenced by a significant shift towards virtual or remote care.
A spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care said sexual and reproductive health services had remained open throughout the coronavirus pandemic, often adapting by scaling up their online services.
He added: “The Government has required local authorities in England to commission comprehensive, accessible sexual health services – including free contraception – and teenage pregnancies are at an all-time low."