Ben Bradshaw: Sexual health services are in crisis - it's time for leadership and action
The Health and Social Care Committee found that there are serious issues facing sexual health in England. Ministers should stop burying their heads in the sand and show leadership, writes Ben Bradshaw
There are serious issues facing sexual health in England. That was one of the key findings of the Health and Social Care Committee’s report into sexual health published last month. I am a member of that committee, and we are not alone in our concerns. Organisations from Terrence Higgins Trust to the Local Government Association and British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) have called the current situation with sexual health a crisis.
Sexual health services in England – which are funded by local authority public health budgets – have seen severe cuts. National government has cut public health funding by £700m in real terms between 2014 and 2020, and sexual health budgets have been reduced by 25%. At the same time, demand on sexual health services has increased by 15% and cases of syphilis and gonorrhoea are skyrocketing, with drug resistant strains of gonorrhoea now a serious threat.
'Demand on sexual health services has increased by 15% and cases of syphilis and gonorrhoea are skyrocketing'
There has been insufficient action taken by this government to tackle poor sexual health. However, this situation can be overcome if the government takes action around five key areas.
Firstly, we must increase public health funding, including sexual health funding, in the upcoming spending review. Local authorities are clear they cannot absorb any more cuts to the public health grant and need investment to address the demand seen in sexual health services. These short-sighted cuts to vital services must stop. Investment in public health not only leads to better individual health outcomes but also saves money for our NHS and social care system.
Secondly, the government should include sexual health in the prevention green paper. This government has been talking the talk about the priority it will give to prevention – now it must deliver on that rhetoric. The upcoming prevention green paper must include ambitious commitments on sexual health and set out concrete actions on how the government will tackle sexually transmitted infections (STIs), improve sexual health and end new HIV transmissions.
Thirdly, they must commit to and deliver a sexual health strategy. Throughout the recent select committee inquiry into sexual health, we heard the clear call from charities, doctors and local government that a national sexual health strategy is desperately needed. There is no current strategy, no targets on STIs, no vision from the government on what it is actually trying to achieve around the nation’s sexual health. Not. Good. Enough.
The government must now commit to drafting and delivering a national sexual health strategy that brings together all stakeholders and holds the system to account on making progress to improve sexual health.
Fourthly, we have to ensure relationships and sex education delivers for all. As a nation we have been failing our young people for far too long. Relationships and sex education (RSE) will become a reality in all schools from September 2020. These lessons must include necessary information and advice on STIs and HIV so that young people have all they need to make informed choices around their sexual health. The Government must also step up its support to schools to ensure they have the resources required to deliver high quality RSE.
Finally, the government must act to stop inequalities in access to HIV prevention, including access to PrEP. In January of this year, the health secretary committed England to ending new HIV transmissions by 2030 at the latest – a target I support. But achieving this target is not possible unless we end the postcode lottery in access to PrEP. In England, the highly effective HIV prevention drug is currently only available via a capped NHS England-led trial and a commitment to increase places on the trial has still not been implemented. In the meantime, people who could benefit from PrEP are being denied access.
My message to the Government is clear: you can no longer bury your head in the sand when it comes to sexual health. Step up, show leadership and together let’s take action to reverse the sexual health crisis in England.
Ben Bradshaw is Labour MP for Exeter and a member of the Health and Social Care Select Committee