The government has been criticised for publishing its plans for sexual health care just days before local authorities take charge of running services.
Under the health reforms set out by the controversial Health and Social Care Act, local authorities in England will take on the responsibility for public health in their areas, including sexual health, from 1 April.
But ministers have only just published their “sexual health framework” to help authorities decide how best to provide sexual health services in their area.
Labour’s shadow public health minister Diane Abbott said: “What have ministers been doing for the past 22 months? This document has come out just weeks before most sexual health commissioning transfers to local authorities.
“This is an insult to the public, healthcare workers and to local authorities who are on the front line. The unacceptable delay has created chaos, bringing work to a standstill, and yet this document has no new answers. It’s families, local authorities and healthcare workers paying the cost of this Government’s incompetence.”
Public health minister Anna Soubry set out the framework today saying that local councils need to make a ” concerted effort” to cut STI rates and reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.
Ms Soubry said: “Despite some improvements, sexual health in England could be a lot better. We need to work together to see a more open and honest culture around sex and relationships. We want to encourage a culture which enables people to make informed decisions free from stigma, coercion and abuse. Sexual health can be a hidden problem, unspoken about among families and friends, and we need to work hard to change that.
“To cut rates of STIs, and to increase access to contraception and thereby reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, we need a concerted effort from everyone, especially local councils who will start commissioning services from 1 April. With the launch of Public Health England, there is a real opportunity for local councils to make renewed efforts to improve the sexual health of their communities.”
British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) president Dr Janet Wilson said: “BASHH welcomes the launch of today’s strategy, but it should be noted that there is only nine full working days before local authorities take responsibility for commissioning sexual health services.
“It is urgent that local authorities implement the strategy immediately to ensure continuity of provision at the same high standards that has enabled significant sexual health improvements over the past ten years.”
While the framework does call for greater efforts to prevent STIs and HIV and an increase in the number of people in high-risk groups being tested for HIV, the National AIDS Trust said that the framework “doesn’t go far enough”.
Charity chief executive Deborah Jack said: ” Whilst it is heartening to see that it deals with HIV as a sexually transmitted infection in great detail and that the key tools for tackling the HIV epidemic - testing and prevention - are given the emphasis they deserve, the document does not go far enough.
“The framework rightly focuses on prevention for the most at-risk groups - gay and bisexual men and African communities - but it fails to mention at all prevention for the 25% of people diagnosed with HIV every year who are non-African heterosexuals.
“The document addresses STI-related stigma and embarrassment but focuses more on social awkwardness rather than the very real prejudice and discrimination faced by many people living with HIV.
“Whilst the Framework for Sexual Health Improvement in England will be an invaluable resource for commissioners it does not replace the need for a comprehensive strategy on HIV.”
Sir Nick Partridge, chief executive at Terrence Higgins Trust, added: “We need to see a strengthening of high impact HIV prevention work for those most at risk, an expansion in accessible sexual health services delivered in the community, and we seriously need to bring sex and relationships education into the 21st century. Without this kind of sustained investment, and real innovation, sexual ill health will become a serious burden for generations to come.”
Jonathan McShane, the Local Government Association’s lead member for sexual health, said: “Councils are looking forward to taking on our new responsibilities for public health and getting to grips with some of the wider social and economic causes of ill health.
“Our work to date tackling issues such as teenage pregnancy should give people confidence in our ability to handle very sensitive and personal health issues and over the next year we will focus on ensuring a safe and smooth transition of services.
“We want to build on the really good work of recent years as well as taking a fresh look at areas where progress has been slower.”
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