Respected medical journal The Lancet has criticised the UK’s policy on HIV over the estimated numbers of individuals unaware they carrying the virus.

In an editorial, the journal noted that around 21,000 people are thought to be unaware they are HIV-positive and that an increase in infection rates has been seen in both gay and straight individuals.

It argued that Department of Health recommendations for a stronger public health response have been largely ignored, despite one former senior government health official warning that the problem is an “appalling statistic”, and a “serious epidemiological issue”.

The journal advocated a “purposeful, but not coercive, policy of HIV testing for all men and women aged 15 to 59 years”.

It concluded: “There is no credible strategy to diagnose and care for those living with, but unaware of, HIV in Britain today. This is an extraordinary failure in public health. The UK’s policy is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This failure needs an urgent response.”

Earlier this year, The Lancet criticised Pope Benedict XVI over comments he made about the AIDS crisis in Africa.

The pontiff claimed the use of condoms “aggravates” the spread of the disease.

Responding, the journal called for him to retract the comments, saying he had “publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine on this issue”.

It added: “When any influential person, be it a religious or political figure, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record.