The UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity has questioned the government’s readiness to deliver PrEP in England by April as it has promised.
The drug known as PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) is the most effective protection against HIV transmission. It is provided on the NHS in Scotland and in Wales but is not easily accessible in England and Northern Ireland.
In October 2019 the health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said “the rollout from a trial to routine commissioning will happen in April ”, while also conceding that “there are some gaps where local authorities need to do more”.
On Tuesday the Terrence Higgins Trust rang alarm bells as it warned that the government is unclear on how it will meet this deadline, stressing that the rollout of PrEP is “vital” in controlling the spread of the disease.
“The government has confirmed its intention to make PrEP routinely available in England from April, which is absolutely the right decision and vital as we aim to end HIV transmissions over the next decade,” said Debbie Laycock, head of policy at the Terrence Higgins Trust in the Pharmaceutical Journal.
“But it’s now late February and – despite all of the government’s rhetoric on the importance of prevention – it’s entirely unclear how this timetable is going to be stuck to or how PrEP will be effectively delivered.”
Laycock said that the current PrEP trial is being delivered by sexual health services that are already “overstretched”, meaning that, for PrEP to be maximised for HIV prevention, sexual health services must be fully funded to deliver equal access to the drug across the country.
In January 2019 the government promised to double in size the NHS England’s PrEP Impact Trial trial, but in June 2019 more than a quarter of sexual health clinics involved were still closed to new recruits.
“We have been vocal campaigners for PrEP to be made fully available since it was proven to be so effective in preventing HIV transmission,” Laycock said, adding that the Terrence Higgins Trust would continue holding the government to account.
“This includes ensuring a seamless transition for those accessing PrEP via the current impact trial,” she said.
“There’s also work needed to ensure any wide-scale PrEP programme is fit for purpose and all groups impacted by HIV are aware of its vast benefits.”
Other experts have warned of significant shortages of the drug if the UK goes through a hard Brexit.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are working with NHS England and [NHS] Improvement, Public Health England and local authorities to plan for the commissioning of PrEP from April 2020”.