While this year might have been a write-off in many respects, for Terrence Higgins Trust there were key successes in the fight against HIV – even if they were achieved via Zoom from the kitchen table.
Because while we’re working to end new HIV cases by 2030, every day, week, month and year count. This year saw significant movement on PrEP access in England, important changes to blood donation rules in the UK, game-changing commitments from the Government on HIV targets, and the launch of our new trans and non-binary sexual health information.
We also did lots of unexpected things driven by COVID-19, including publishing advice and information specifically for people living with HIV, commonsense guidance for having sex while managing the risks of coronavirus, and our Break the Chain campaign with 56 Dean Street to drive testing at home during lockdown.
If that’s whetted your appetite, grab a box of Quality Street and keep reading.
2020 – the year in review
The start of the year saw the release of our State of the Nation report on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in partnership with the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH).
The report is a strong call for action and explains the trouble we’re in when it comes to the nation’s sexual health, with under-funded and over-burdened sexual health services and a new STI diagnosed every 70 seconds. Next year’s data will be very interesting – but we can’t rely on a pandemic to bring down STI rates.
Just ahead of the first COVID-19 lockdown in March, the Department of Health finally announced uncapped access to HIV prevention pill PrEP in England and we worked to ensure the voices of people taking PrEP were central to that important moment in HIV history. This victory was years in the making and our Chief Executive Ian Green wrote a thank-you to everyone who made this happen for iNews and committed to increasing uptake in groups beyond gay and bisexual men.
Health Secretary @MattHancock has announced #PrEP WILL be uncapped in England. This is an important moment in the fight against HIV.
Roll-out must now happen rapidly so no one is left behind.
This is a victory years in the making. Thank you for standing with us. pic.twitter.com/N7xp0EpkMO
— Terrence Higgins Trust (@THTorguk) March 15, 2020
Then, as coronavirus dominated everything, we stepped up to play our part in the response.
Our Medical Director Dr Michael Brady worked with the British HIV Association to provide trusted health information for people living with HIV, while our helpline THT Direct expanded its opening hours to help ease anxieties. We also moved fast to launch our At Home platform – bringing our bumped-up digital services together in one place, including online wellbeing workshops on resilience and mental health and free video counselling for anyone living with HIV.
In parallel, we worked with sexual health clinic 56 Dean Street to make the most of the unexpected opportunity lockdown had presented to break the chain on HIV transmission. Our new research found that 84% of people weren’t having sex outside their immediate household, which meant – after a month or more without a new sexual partner – it was the ideal time to test safely at home. We worked with Public Health England to release 10,000 postal tests and developed a brand new online test finder to help you access a test wherever you are in the UK.
Our COVID-19 sex advice was published in August when infection rates were low. It included a strong call to action to get tested for HIV and other STIs before having sex again and to have open conversations with potential partners to minimise risk. We nonethless made it clear that during the pandemic you are your own best sexual partner. This resulted in some interesting social media posts and controversial emoji choices...
Following the killing of George Floyd in America, our Chief Executive strongly stated our charity’s unflinching commitment to tackling inequalities and our specific role in tackling the sexual health inequalities black communities continue to face. Since then, we've established a Racial Diversity Group to lead change in the organisation. We also spoke out on trans rights this summer in an incredibly challenging year for trans and non-binary people. We will always stand with the trans community and fight for trans equality because inequalities and marginalisation only serve further to entrench sexual health inequalities.
September brought more worrying news on sexually transmitted infections, with data from 2019 showing a 26% rise in gonorrhoea. We repeated our calls for movement on the Government’s sexual health strategy. We need a clear plan for tackling consistently high rates of common STIs – as well as solutions to the sexual health inequalities which are becoming more and more entrenched. The wait continues on that one.
The autumn finally saw confirmation of PrEP rollout funding for local sexual health services and within weeks the money was handed to English councils. After a slow and frustrating period, routine PrEP commissioning is now widespread. COVID-19, and its impact on local public health capacity, means there are ongoing challenges but everyone is working together to deal with any issues. If you want to start PrEP, you should contact your local clinic.
In October there was good news with the announcement of Gareth Thomas as our newest patron in recognition of all the work he’s done with us to transform public perceptions of HIV. We also launched new sexual health services in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, where we’ll be working with the local community to promote STI testing, support people living with HIV, and prevent unwanted pregnancies. Then, as part of the national HIV prevention programme for England, we launched a new campaign to increase knowledge and awareness of the HIV prevention pill among black African people: PrEP Protects.
NEW CAMPAIGN ALERT. 🔊
The #PrEPProtects campaign focuses on raising awareness of PrEP, the HIV prevention tool within the black African community.💊
People of Black African ethnicity are one of the groups most affected by HIV in the UK.
RT to raise awareness📲 pic.twitter.com/oc1t81BF8M
— It Starts With Me (@startswith_me) October 19, 2020
New HIV data from Public Health England showed a 10% drop in new HIV diagnoses in 2019, driven by an 18% fall among gay and bisexual men. That set the scene for the launch of the HIV Commission’s report on World AIDS Day. Established by us alongside National AIDS Trust and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Commission was tasked with making clear recommendations for ending new HIV cases in England by 2030 and on 1 December it did exactly that.
Testing, testing and more testing were the central recommendations with a call for HIV testing to happen whenever blood is taken right across our NHS – no matter your gender, sexuality or ethnicity. We believe this step change is crucial to achieve the 2030 goal and were thrilled when the UK Government stepped up to commit to actions that will achieve that vision. We also helped people living with HIV to share their own stories about why that goal matters so much.
We've come so far but now there's a historic opportunity to end new cases of HIV within the decade.
It can be done. Today's new #HIVCommission report gives us a roadmap to making this a reality. #0HIVby30https://t.co/XmXAABc0cx pic.twitter.com/ntzlUsCtTo
— Terrence Higgins Trust (@THTorguk) December 1, 2020
In December, as 2020 came to a close, the UK Government announced changes to the blood donation rules to come in to effect next summer. The new rules will see the end of blanket deferral periods based on gender or sexuality while also ensuring the UK’s blood supply is safe. This follows a review by group FAIR – which we sat on – and the recommendation of more individualised risk assessments.
Finally, we finished on a high with the launch of our new trans and non-binary sexual health information. The development of this pages was community-led and based on the feedback of over 200 trans, non-binary and gender diverse people. As the project’s peer researcher Dr Kate Nambiar said, ‘As trans people, we need to see ourselves in sexual health campaigns and know that the information is written with us in mind.’
2021 dates for your diary
2021 sees a delayed National HIV Testing Week starting on 1 February. There will be a focus on testing for HIV at home during the pandemic, with vital support from celebrities, influencers and activists.
We will be launching new learning materials for healthcare professionals to build their confidence to explain that people living with HIV and on effective treatment can’t pass it on – as the next important phase of our Can’t Pass It On campaign. Healthcare professionals shouldn’t be saying ‘might not’ or ‘there’s a negligible chance’ – but that HIV can't be passed on by people on effective treatment.
We also look forward to the development of the UK Government’s HIV action plan, secured on World AIDS Day, as well as the new blood donation rules coming into effect in the summer. And, as always, loads of other stuff – some expected, some not. Some good, some bad.
Thank you for all your support in 2020 and please stick with us in 2021.
Fraser Wilson is Terrence Higgins Trust's Head of Media & PR.