Last week, new figures from Public Health England (PHE) showed the UK has hit the United Nations’ target on HIV for 2020, with Public Health Minister Steve Brine MP commenting: ‘We look forward to brighter futures in this policy area, as we work towards what I am determined will be zero stigma and zero transmissions’.
But the Government is still proposing to slash the public health budget by £85 million when it announces the local authority funding settlement for 2019/2020 this month, according to its own figures. This includes the funding for already overstretched sexual health services, where demand is already outstripping supply.
Leading HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust is now calling for the Government to reverse cuts to public health budgets to ensure continued progress in driving down new HIV diagnoses in the UK, as well as tackling consistently high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
The cuts, which are expected to be announced imminently, will bring total cuts to public health to £700 million in real terms between 2014 and 2020. These cuts come despite new statistics from PHE showing we now have the opportunity to continue progress to end new HIV infections.
Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, was asked if the Government would make a firm commitment to ending new HIV transmissions by 2030. He said the Government would be ‘ensuring that we redouble our commitment to making sure that we do everything we can’.
In a video message to mark World AIDS Day, prime minister Theresa May said ‘By working together we can end the stigma of HIV and eliminate HIV completely’.
Speaking in response to MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle’s speech in the Commons about living with HIV, the Public Health Minister Steve Brine MP said: ‘It is vital that we continue to break down the stigma, normalise testing and support those most at risk of infection’ and spoke of ‘zero stigma and zero transmissions’.
However, leading think tank The Health Foundation reports a 25% cut to sexual health budgets between 2013 and 2017, while Public Health England data shows a 13% increase in attendance over the same period.
Recent data, including from the British HIV Association and British Association of Sexual Health and HIV, also shows that a worryingly high proportion of sexual health doctors are having to turn people away because they don’t have capacity to see them – including patients with symptomatic STIs.
Debbie Laycock, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Terrence Higgins Trust, said:
‘Public health and properly funded sexual health services are absolutely crucial if we’re to achieve our ambitious but achievable aim of zero new HIV infections. As well as HIV, sexual health services are vital to tackle the soaring rates of gonorrhoea and syphilis. These STIs have seen a 20% increase in just a year with drug-resistant gonorrhoea also of concern across the country.
‘It’s completely disingenuous to boast of additional funding for the NHS while at the same time cutting public health. The Government must now do the right thing and stop the cuts to public health services that we are expecting to be confirmed imminently. Otherwise, the kind words from Theresa May, Steve Brine and Matt Hancock on ending new HIV transmissions are just that – kind words.
‘For too long public health has been the poor relation to the NHS. If the Government is serious about ending HIV transmissions and combatting the growing syphilis and gonorrhoea epidemics we need an end to irresponsible and short-sighted cuts to public health, including sexual health services.’