The decline reflects a combination of reduced STI testing as a result of disruption to sexual health services leading to fewer diagnoses, and changes in behaviour during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which may have reduced STI transmission. Despite the fall in diagnoses, PHE's data highlights that STI diagnoses overall remain high.
In 2020, sexual health services continued to diagnose hundreds of thousands of STIs after scaling up testing accessed using telephone and internet consultations as well as continuing face-to-face appointments for urgent or complex cases. However, compared to 2019, consultations at sexual health services in 2020 decreased by 10%. The biggest drop occurred in face-to-face consultations which fell by 35% since 2019, but internet consultations doubled over the same time period.
Although people could still access STI testing, there was a 25% fall in sexual health screens (tests for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis or HIV) and the change in service delivery impacted the diagnoses of STIs in different ways. For example, STIs that require a clinical in-person assessment, such as genital warts and herpes saw a greater drop in diagnoses (46% and 40% falls, respectively), compared to STIs that could be diagnosed using self-sampling kits following an internet consultation, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea (29% fall and 20% fall, respectively).
As in previous years, in 2020 the highest rates of STI diagnoses were still seen in young people 15 to 24 years; people of Black ethnicity; and gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.
Dr Katy Sinka, Head of Sexually Transmitted Infections section at PHE, said:
No one wants to swap social distancing for an STI, and as we enjoy the fact that national COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, it's important that we continue to look after our sexual health and wellbeing. If you are having sex with new or casual partners, use a condom and get tested - STIs can pose serious consequences to your own health and that of your current or future sexual partners.
Often people may not realise that they have an STI since the infections are often symptomless. This means that more people can easily contract an STI or pass one on without knowing and therefore, if you are having condomless sex with new or casual partners, it is vital that you get tested regularly regardless of whether you show symptoms.
Those at risk of STIs can access testing through sexual health services. Many services offer online testing, which means people can order self-sampling kits using sexual health services' websites, take them in the privacy of their own home, send them off to a laboratory for testing and receive results either by text, phone call or post. Local sexual health services can be found online at NHS.UK
Read the full report and breakdown of data. Data on HIV diagnoses will be published later in 2021.
PHE recommends regular HIV and STI testing for those with new or casual partners.
STIs can be successfully prevented by:
- using male or female condoms every time you have vaginal and anal sex
- using a condom to cover the penis if you have oral sex
- not sharing sex toys, or washing them and covering them with a new condom before anyone else uses them
Find out more about the signs and symptoms of STIs on NHS.UK