Ed Miliband says ministers must take “responsibility” over the failure of GPs to offer comprehensive HIV testing, and that it’s “crucial” the Government invests more in HIV prevention whilst also waking up to the “food bank” crisis.
The Labour leader told PinkNews.co.uk in an exclusive interview that he was alarmed by reports of healthcare professionals failing to offer HIV tests to groups most at risk of carrying the virus.
A study published last week in the British Geriatrics Society journal ‘Age and Ageing’ suggested that despite a year-on-year increase in the number of older people diagnosed with HIV, many clinicians are reluctant to offer HIV tests to the over 50s.
Figures released in November last year by Public Health England showed HIV transmission among men who have sex with men (MSM) at an all-time high.
Dhiverse, a charity in Cambridgeshire which offers advice to GPs on HIV testing, last month revealed in a BBC investigation that out of the 96 surgeries it had visited, only two agreed to participate in HIV training.
Ed Miliband said it showed the Government had a “responsibility” to make sure local authorities, who are now responsible for commissioning HIV prevention work, had “adequate testing in place.”
Mr Miliband told PinkNews.co.uk: “The Government has a responsibility to work with GPs and health centres to make sure, not only are they aware of their responsibilities, but also to encourage them to provide testing.”
The Labour leader claimed large-scale reductions in the number of NHS walk-in clinics were undermining efforts to increase HIV testing.
“What is really really important is that we have health centres and places where people can go for confidential advice and HIV testing – that people are referred to these places – yet we have seen a reduction in the number of walk-in centres for example under this Government.”
He added: “I am very concerned about it. I think we should have the health centres available where people can have the tests being done, but we also need to make people properly aware of where they can get tested and how they can do that.”
Mr Miliband also said the Government was in “total denial” about the rising use of food banks, particularly by people living with chronicle health conditions such as HIV, where access to good nutrition is seen as vital.
Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s largest HIV and sexual health charity, published a report in February showing that an increasing number of people with HIV were using its Hardship Fund. The Food Chain, a charity which provides nutritional support to people living with HIV, has also seen an increase in the number of people using its services.
Mr Miliband said contentious welfare reforms and changes to benefits were to blame for the upheaval. “I think it’s due to benefit changes and things like the Bedroom Tax,” he said to PinkNews.co.uk “I think the Coalition is in total denial about the massive rise in food banks and particularly with it affecting people living with HIV, many of whom are reliant on benefit funding. It is something the Government needs to face up to.”
The former Environment Secretary said a future Labour Government would put a greater emphasis on prevention as a health strategy.
“Prevention is incredibly important,” Mr Miliband told PinkNews.co.uk. “Preventing HIV is a far better solution because it’s not necessary for people to become infected. I think it’s crucial: making sure there is that investment in HIV prevention – and it’s a key part of the Government’s responsibility, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the efficient thing to do, and it’s the best way of spending vital money.”
If the party wins the 2015 general election, Mr Miliband said Labour would also make sex education compulsory in the classroom.
In January, the House of Lords rejected a Labour amendment to the Children and Families Bill, which would have make sex education, including lessons on same-sex relationships, compulsory across state-funded primary and secondary schools.
Plans for statutory Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) failed in the House of Commons last summer, after they were voted down by Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs.
Whilst agreeing with the sentiment, Mr Miliband questioned the logic of the Lib Dem leader in siding with the Tories against statutory SRE.
“Making sex education in schools compulsory is the right thing to do, it’s the right thing for our young people, it’s the right thing for our country, and we should have the courage of our convictions,” Mr Miliband concluded in his interview to PinkNews.