What Is It With This Tory Government and Sexual Health?

08/06/2016 16:51 | Updated 09 June 2016

The recent decision by NHS England not to fund the pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) prevention method, which can significantly reduce the risk of HIV infection, was an extremely disappointing announcement.

The UK's leading HIV and sexual health charities have even gone as far to say the decision is "shameful", and all the all major HIV organisations have come together to write a letter calling on the government to make PrEP available to people at high risk.

This indecision is just yet another example of a Tory Government kicking things into the long grass, particularly when it comes to LGBT sexual health.

Another such example is the recent announcement that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be offered to gay men for the first time in England. However Health Minister Jane Ellison said this will only be a pilot scheme for now, upon which the full roll-out of the programme will depend.

So thousands of men will be eligible for the treatment and thousands more will not. This decision has been labelled as "unnecessary", "cynical" and a "dangerous" by leading HPV charities and medical professionals, and ignores the medical advice that the government was given and said it would stick by.

It is such policy failures that lead me to be thankful that the majority of health policy is devolved - with the Scottish and Welsh governments already committed to HPV vaccinations for gay and bisexual men, and the Scottish Government willing to take a more direct approach on PreP once the licensing issue is resolved. However we won't make progress by operating in a silo, all parts of the UK and beyond must work together.

When I spoke about this issue in the House of Commons, Health Minister, Jane Ellison, shouted "it's devolved", as though I'd committed some sort of crime. In short, the mask had slipped.

As well as sounding incredibly petulant, it adumbrated a government not up to the challenges we face. That's not good enough.

With HIV rates on the rise, we can't afford a Minister of the largest constituent part of the UK - England - to be so willing to sit on the fence on major sexual health challenges. Sexual infections know no boundaries and tackling them requires coordinated work - not just across the UK, but with international partners as well. It's time to get out of Whitehall, Minister.

However we shouldn't really be surprised with this. After all, this is a Tory Government whose first priority on LGBT sexual health was to try (and fail) to ban poppers. A short dizzy spell enjoyed by large numbers of gay and bisexual men was deemed so evil and unhealthy that they went as far as passing an Act of Parliament, in the face of widespread medical opinion telling them they had got it wrong. In the end, they dropped it.

Meanwhile they've kicked HPV vaccinations into long grass and put barrier after barrier in the way of actual lifesaving medication such as Prep. I thought this was the Department for Health, not the Department against Health.

The decision makers in this Government need to step up and work at the same rate as other nations. The bizarre obsession with poppers ahead of life saving treatment just goes to show their priorities are all wrong.

The current uncertainty surrounding HPV vaccinations and PreP is literally putting lives at risk.
A full roll-out of the HPV vaccine to gay and bisexual men would see a significant reduction in HPV diagnoses and would protect against cancers directly caused by HPV, such as oral and anal cancers.

Without PreP, we will still see seventeen people diagnosed with HIV every day. Those who will feel the effects the most are the 2,500 men who have sex with men who will be needlessly infected with HIV each year in the UK. Commissioning PreP could be the beginning of the end of the HIV epidemic.

Surely these issues are more important than a clamp down on poppers?

Stewart McDonald is the SNP MP for Glasgow South