Labour is in a hurry to end new cases of HIV – and we make no apology for it

Jon Ashworth
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The Russell T Davies hit drama It’s A Sin is still racking up record-breaking views on Channel 4’s on-demand service and across the globe on HBO. It has sparked an epic conversation about HIV in the 1980s and early ’90s. A time of real despair, especially for the LGBT+ community.

But we live in a time of hope. It is now scientifically possible to end new cases of HIV in a country like the UK before the decade is out. Campaigners have convinced this government to adopt this as a formal policy. It is an aim Labour not only shares but seeks to see deliver while in office.

The final report of the HIV Commission said England could be the first country to meet this ambitious goal – but only if the government follows their advice. In response, ministers have promised an HIV Action Plan to set a course to 2030.

After a close study of the Commission’s report and meetings with HIV charities, at the end of January Labour published our five pillars necessary to ensure the UK is the first country to end new cases of HIV. These are big-ticket items on which all the other efforts rely.

If I were the Secretary of State, I would include:

  1. Funding opt-out HIV testing across the NHS.
  2. Making the HIV prevention drug PrEP available beyond sexual health clinics – in GPs and pharmacies to name a few – and better known outside the LGBT+ community.
  3. Taking action on late HIV diagnoses and returning patients to care.
  4. Supporting a hearts and minds changing anti-stigma campaign to update public attitudes that widely remain stubbornly stuck in the days of It’s A Sin.
  5. Transforming mental health support for those living with HIV.

When we launched this vision at the start of the year, we were warning about delays. Now 150 days have passed since the HIV Commission reported, and the first meeting of the government’s group to develop their promised HIV Action Plan has still not met. Every day of delay is a wasted opportunity to take decisive action to stop lives being impacted by HIV.

This week, the charities behind the HIV Commission, Terrence Higgins Trust, National AIDS Trust and the Elton John AIDS Foundation have launched a campaign to get the action necessary to end new cases of HIV by 2030. They have Labour’s full support.

But it is not just those of us in Westminster who are trying to make this ambition a reality. Team Labour is working together nationally. On May 6th, the whole country goes to the polls. In Labour’s manifestos in LondonGreater ManchesterScotland and Wales, we are promising real action.

My friend Vaughan Gething was the first UK health minister to make the 2030 pledge to end new cases, Sadiq Khan has overseen London having the best HIV diagnosis rates of any city in the world, Andy Burnham is promising to put his city on the same footing. Our fantastic new leader in Scotland Anas Sarwar has long campaigned for action on HIV and is ably supported by deputy Jackie Bailie who also serves as health spokesperson. It is really impressive stuff. Something every Labour member can be proud to know we will deliver.

If the Department for Health and Social Care are not going to treat it as urgent, Labour across the country will. In fact, Labour is in a hurry to end new cases of HIV and we make no apology for it. Why? Because HIV in many ways is the original intersectional issue. It can affect anyone but it preys on inequality. Its stigma looms large and many living with HIV say the discrimination is worse than the virus. The fact we have all tools to end new cases of HIV but are not using them is criminal. Urgency is the name of the game. Covid-19 has shown what is possible.

As ever with Matt Hancock, the words are plentiful but the follow-up so rare. Speed is the name of the game. It shouldn’t take 150 days to have one meeting following a Commission of this kind. When the HIV sector was pleading with the government to change the rules on vaccines, we had to raise it time and again in the House of Commons to get action. We cannot do this on every pillar necessary to meet the nation’s pledge to end new cases this decade.

My worry is their support is paper thin. Not even that. The Conservative manifestos in Scotland and Wales have nothing, literally nothing, to say on the issue of HIV, nor ending new cases. While Rishi Sunak spoke about the HIV Commission on World AIDS Day, is he actually going to fund an Action Plan worthy of its name? That is yet to be seen. I won’t hold my breath.

The people, too many lost before their time, that inspired the It’s A Sin characters would jump at the chance to have a small proportion of the tools we have available today to stop new transmissions and ensure people live well with HIV. This is a unique moment in history. It cannot miss the opportunity for a better tomorrow.

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