Sexual health clinics 'at tipping point' after Government cuts and huge rise in demand, councils warn

Charities say under-funding is likely to lead to more people contracting sexually transmitted infections

Benjamin Kentish
Thursday 03 August 2017 00:02 BST
A number of sexually-transmitted diseases have been on the rise in recent years
A number of sexually-transmitted diseases have been on the rise in recent years (Rex Features)

Sexual health clinics are facing unprecedented demand and are struggling to cope in the face of Government funding cuts, local councils have warned.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said demand for services had rocketed by 25 per cent in the last five years while local councils’ public health budgets had fallen by 10 per cent.

The LGA warned patients were facing delays as sexual health services hit “tipping point”, with those fearing they have contracted an infection facing agonising waits for appointments and results.

The organisation, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, said local authorities had been taken over responsibility for public health from the NHS in 2013, but ministers had not given them enough funding to deliver services.

In 2016 there were almost 2.5 million new attendances at sexual health clinics – up from 1.9 million in 2012.

At the same time, the Government has cut local councils’ public health budgets by a total of £531m.

Councillor Izzi Seccombe, chairman of the LGA's community well-being board, said: "While it is encouraging that more and more people are taking their own and their partners' sexual health seriously, we are concerned that this increase in demand is creating capacity and resource issues for councils.

"We are concerned that this will see waiting times start to increase and patient experience deteriorate.

"The reduction in public health funding could also compound problems further and impact on councils' ability to meet demand and respond to unforeseen outbreaks.

"We cannot tackle this by stretching services even thinner. Sexual health services are now reaching a tipping point where it will be extremely challenging to maintain this progress.”

The number of people being diagnosed with several sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has increased significantly in the UK in recent years. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of new gonorrhoea diagnoses increased from 26,880 to 36,244 while the number of people being found to have syphilis rose from 3,001 to 5,920.

New reported cases of other infections, including herpes and chlamydia, have fallen slightly.

Sexual health charities backed calls for increased investment in sexual health clinics and said the Government should “put its money where its mouth is”.

Debbie Laycock, head of policy and parliamentary affairs at the Terrence Higgins Trust, told The Independent: “We fully support the Local Government Association’s demand for Government to reverse the public health cuts that local authorities have been dealt.

“There is still much to do to address the nation’s poor sexual health and the inequalities that are faced by those most at risk. In this climate of cuts to local authorities’ public health budgets, it is inevitable that the progress that has been made against STIs will be reversed. We are already witnessing the closure of busy sexual health clinics and, without proper funding, this will only continue and have a negative impact on people’s sexual health.

“We need the government to fully fund sexual health services and make prevention including STI testing and sexual health information as simple and accessible as possible. We cannot expect to avoid a sexual health crisis in England unless local authorities are supported to deliver their public health duties.

“The Government must now put its money where its mouth is and invest in sexual health prevention services.”

Natika Halil, chief executive of sexual health charity FPA, said under-investment would lead to “more sexually transmitted infections and higher costs”.

“Sexual health services play a vital role in public health but time and again, we’re hearing reports of them being stretched to breaking point,” she said.

“We’re incredibly concerned at the level of strain services are under due to spending cuts and the negative effects this has on patients who are trying to look after their health and make responsible choices.

“It’s vital that patients who may have a sexually transmitted infection are tested quickly and treated appropriately to reduce the risk of passing an infection on to someone else.

Labour said ministers were presiding over an “unprecedented public health crisis”.

Sharon Hodgson MP, the party’s Shadow Health Minister, told The Independent: “Theresa May’s first year in office has been characterised by an unprecedented public health crisis at a time of growing demand on local services.

“The LGA’s acute warning must serve as a wake up-call to this Tory government. Their abject failure to properly fund crucial public health services is clearly having a severe impact on sexual health, despite the best efforts of councils and NHS staff.

“By comparison, Labour has pledged to ring-fence public health budgets and will not fail the millions of people who have been let down by Theresa May’s unwillingness to take bold, decisive action on the health of our nation.”

A Department for Health spokesperson said: “Sexual transmitted infections, including HIV, are continuing to fall and over the current spending period we will invest more than £16 billion in local government public health services.

“In addition, as part of the wider national HIV prevention programme, NHSE and PHE will be launching a major pioneering trial soon — providing PrEP to more than 10,000 people.”

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