In a week where we should see many in our elected and unelected chambers of power hang their heads in shame - the passing of the Lobbying Bill, and failure of the Lords to see sex education compulsory in schools - are really nothing to be proud of - one group of politicians really have triumphed. I'm talking about Dr Phillip Lee, and all the other MPs, with their thankfully failed amendment to the Immigration Bill (HIV Positive Immigrants Should Be Banned From Entering UK, Tory MPs Say, Huffington Post 30 Jan 2014)
Positively UK is peer-led charity helping hundreds of people living with HIV every year in coming to terms with a new diagnosis, understanding the complexities of the condition, the treatments and in navigating the health social care system. Fundamentally what we are there for is to provide someone to talk to. The biggest single issue people present to us is that of isolation, caused by fear that the stigma still surrounding HIV will result in prejudice and discrimination from family, friends and society in general.
Many people living with HIV are supported by family and friends, and have relationships that are as loving, happy and quarrelsome as everyone else. Unfortunately for some people the reaction can be quite different: the woman who had to move following taunts and her house being a constant target for graffiti; the ones who stay in abusive relationships because they are constantly told no-one else will want them; or the family who could just about accept their son's sexuality but threw him out the house when he told them he was HIV positive.
Perhaps Dr Lee would agree with the actions above? For by choosing to single out a few conditions such as HIV, and reinforcing some misguided prejudices, Dr Lee has reinforced the stigma that is prevalent in society. A stigma that prevents many people seeking the support and care they require. One of the current drivers of public health is to get people tested for HIV early on. Too many people are testing late, when they are already ill, increasing the likelihood of them requiring increased medical care and even hospitalization. Furthermore of those testing late from migrant communities, the fact is they are being tested here in the UK. So the amendment was really muddying the waters here. Are we singling out migrants who are tested prior to entering the UK, or will we extend it to those who test positive once they're in the UK. If that's the case surely the message we're sending out is that it's better NOT to know your HIV status and carry on until you drop and need intensive care. This is both ill-conceived from a public health and economics point of view.
However Dr Lee obviously perceives immigrants with HIV as simply being a drain on society. At Positively UK most of the staff here are living with HIV and quite a few are immigrants. In fact I know people from different walks of life who are immigrants, HIV positive and working, studying, volunteering and basically being productive members of society. Productive members of that Tory dream the Big Society one might add. Far from being a drain these people are providing vital services, helping others and paying taxes.
If you're going to make prejudicial remarks about anyone's health condition, and HIV is now considered a long-term manageable condition by the NHS, then perhaps Dr Lee should find out the facts first. So here is an open invitation to Dr Lee. We would welcome you at Positively UK, to meet some people who are living with HIV, people who have immigrated to this country, to understand the real challenges they face, the real contribution they make and the implications of your words and actions on their lives.