Elliot Colburn: The nationwide roll out of HIV transmission prevention drug PrEP is a life-changing government policy

15 Oct

Elliot Colburn is the MP for Carshalton and Wallington

While London Assembly member Andrew Boff was finishing his make-up ahead of LGBT+ Conservatives Lip Sync on the eve of our first virtual conference, Jo Churchill, the Public Health Minister, was Tweeting a life-changing government policy.

Not Boris Johnson’s announcement to make the UK world leader in green energy, or Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “protect the public finances”. In fact this might not be even in the same league for the population at large but for the LGBT community in particular – and many others including Black Africans, those of South or Central American heritage and many women across the country – this will be immediate and life changing: the nationwide roll out of the HIV transmission prevention drug PrEP.

On the eve of Conservative conference, Churchill confirmed not only what money would be available to local councillors to create new appointments at sexual health clinics to get people on PrEP – but that the money had been paid and is in their bank accounts. This £11.2 million of ring-fenced grant means already stretched GUM clinics can meet with would-be beneficiaries, run tests and change lives. Welcoming the news, Richard Angell of Terrence Higgins Trust called it a “watershed” moment.

For those who don’t know, pre-exposure prophylaxis, commonly known as PrEP, is a drug taken by HIV-negative people that reduces the risk of contracting HIV. When taken correctly it is nearly 100 per cent effective.

This is not to be confused with PEP, post-exposure prophylaxis, that is to be taken ideally within 24 hours, but no longer than 72 hours after the body has come into contact with HIV. The former is like the pill, the latter the morning after pill. Both prevent harm and heartache, both save individuals, the community and NHS considerable amounts of money. It’s good for the head and the heart.

Churchill’s news is a huge breakthrough – and a team effort. HIV and community groups across the country have highlighted the benefits of PrEP for five years or more – Terrence Higgins Trust, National AIDS Trust, Prepster and iwantPrEPnow deserve special mention.

In 2016 my colleague Mike Freer wrote for ConservativeHome making the case for a trial and eventual roll out (the trial ends this month and the roll out is concurrent) – he also laudably took on the bigotry in the debate at that time. LGBT+ Conservatives has raised this at every level in the party under the leadership of Colm Howard-Lloyd.

But the game changer was Matt Hancock. In January 2019, he told the Elton John AIDS Foundation that the Government would end HIV transmissions by 2030 – a huge commitment and no small challenge. So much had followed since. More places on the PrEP trial, Secretary of State support for the HIV Commission – founded by but independent of Terrence Higgins Trust, NAT and EJAF and due to report on World AIDS Day 2020 – to chart a way to reach this noble ambition. Now this – PrEP on the NHS.

This is something every Conservative can be proud of. Preventing harm – and illnesses – is best for our voters and the public purse. Being responsible for bringing to an end in England a five-decade long epidemic is something worth being in government for. Showing we are here to improve everyone’s lives. Gay and bisexual men arguably have most to gain but so do Black Africans, women and trans people.

Now the roll out will not be overnight – the kind of transformation will take weeks to implement, but there is no reason to not get in touch with your local clinic, just be kind and remember any delays are not their fault. Covid-19 is still stretching the NHS in all kinds of directions.

While this news is a milestone – the job is not completed yet. Not everyone wants to go to a STI clinic – campaigners want GPs, maternity units, gender clinics, even pharmacies to be able to prescribe PrEP. This would be welcome. There will need to be more funds made available to local authorities – Terrence Higgins Trust, NAT and London Councils have called for £16 million per year for the rest of the parliament. The HIV Commission will, I am sure, provide further guidance.

During the unparalleled Covid times, it feels strange to say there are things we can celebrate – our Government rolling out PrEP is definitely one.

Had Boff been Lip Syncing in person at that iconic LGBT+ Conservatives event he would have raised a glass to this massive leap forward. Instead we have to share a socially distanced pat on the back. Politics is ultimately about change not who gets the credit – but know this, it is yet another thing to be proud a Conservative government has achieved.