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The coronavirus lockdown may have one surprising positive impact – to end the transmission of HIV in Britain, according to a sexual health charity.
Experts say the so-called “lockdown sex ban” has opened up a “one-off opportunity” to “break the chain” on HIV infections, as it can take around a month after possible exposure to the virus to show up on a test.
On Thursday a new study revealed the vast majority (84%) of people in the UK are abstaining from sex outside of their immediate household because of the Covid-19 lockdown.
The survey of over 800 UK adults, conducted by HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust and sexual health clinic 56 Dean Street, found that eight in 10 people plan to forgo meeting up for sex while the ban is in place.
On Monday the government introduced new lockdown rules that explicitly prohibit two people from separate households gathering in a private place.
As having sex in public is already prohibited, the new regulations effectively mean sex with someone outside your household is illegal and both parties could be prosecuted under the law.
Nick Perry, 47, was “not exactly prolific” before the pandemic – “maybe once or twice a month” – but since lockdown he has not met anyone for sex at all.
Although he has felt “a bit frisky” from time to time, he said it was “all about the greater good”.
“Here we are in a viral pandemic,” he told HuffPost UK. “It’s not just about you and your personal health – it’s about how your personal health affects other people.”
Instead of meeting up, Perry said lots of people on the dating app Grindr were exchanging pictures or engaging in dirty talk. “There are plenty of ways to get off.”
Sexual health experts say this “drastic” temporary change in sexual behaviour could provide an opportunity to significantly reduce HIV transmission.
Because it can take up to eight weeks from potential HIV exposure for tests to detect the virus, anyone who hasn’t had sex since before lockdown will get an accurate result.
Perry has been tested for HIV a couple of times, most recently a few weeks ago, for which he tested negative. He said the “fear of the unknown” was preventing some from taking the test.
“The biggest fear for most people is getting the result,” he said. “The more you know about [HIV], the less there is to fear.
“If you have a positive diagnosis, you can live normally just by taking a couple of pills for the rest of your life – which is going to be just as long as if you didn’t have it.
“It’s really simple and not something to be afraid of.”
Liz Porter, clinical director at Terrence Higgins Trust, said now was a “fantastic opportunity” for everyone who doesn’t already know their HIV status to take a test.
“The Covid lockdown situation could create a strange consequence if we can get people tested and normalise testing,” she told HuffPost UK.
“One global pandemic could have a positive impact on another.”
Dr Alan McOwan, lead clinician at 56 Dean Street, said: “With fewer people hooking up for sex, it’s absolutely time to test as we have a great opportunity to pick up even recently acquired HIV infections.
“We didn’t think there would ever be an extended period of abstinence for so many people, but now it’s happened we’re determined to make the most of it.”
Free HIV testing kits are available via post from most councils in England, with national coverage for most affected groups in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In addition, Terrence Higgins Trust is offering free HIV self tests for the next two weeks, which will provide a result within 15 minutes.
Anyone receiving a reactive result from the test could then access medical treatment and support to prevent the virus from being passed on.
The charity urged members of groups most impacted by the virus in the UK – gay and bisexual men, men and women from Black African communities and trans people – to get tested.
Ian Green, chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “This is an incredible opportunity to break the chain on HIV infection and help move us further forward in achieving our goal of ending HIV transmissions in the UK within the next decade. National HIV Testing Week is every November, but we need to act now because this chance won’t wait and won’t come around again.
“It’s estimated that around 7,500 people in the UK are living with undiagnosed HIV, which is bad for their health and means they may unwittingly pass it on. If everyone is able to use their time in lockdown to get tested and know their HIV status, we can ensure something really good comes out of the devastation of the Covid crisis.”