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MS3 - HIV-AIDS Response Plan
(Speaking as the Secretary of State for Health, Michael Heseltine) 

Mr. Speaker, 

I rise this afternoon to formally present the Government's comprehensive Response Plan to the HIV-AIDS crisis. 

As the Home Secretary said a few weeks ago, HIV-AIDS is a serious public health crisis that deserves the full attention and focus of Her Majesty's Government. There is nothing we take more seriously than the health and wellbeing of the British public; the duty the British people have placed in us to protect them is sacred, and we treat it with the utmost respect. The reality facing this country today is that HIV-AIDS is a major epidemic, with the capacity to radically and negatively impact the lives of people across the whole of the United Kingdom. As the Princess of Wales has demonstrated over the past few months, we as a nation must come together to care for those with this disease and to act as one to eradicate it from our shores. 

This Government is heavily influenced by one simple principle: when every British person is healthy, all of the United Kingdom is better off. We recognize that HIV-AIDS has the capacity to harm all of us, not simply those who are most likely to contract the disease. We must treat this disease as the public health crisis that it is, no different. We intend to adopt the innovative harm-reduction strategy proposed by the 1990 Advisory Committee on Drug Misuse report, which recommends pursuing an evidence-based, scientific approach. The proposals we are implementing today are rooted in fact, logic, and reason. And we are confident, Mr. Speaker, that because we are taking this approach we have landed on a plan that has the capacity to make a radical difference in this fight. 

The Government's response proposal is four fold: finding a cure, education and awareness, testing and tracing, and interim prevention. We recognize that there is no one solution when dealing with a problem of this size, so our four parallel strategies have been developed to address the full extent of the crisis. The text of the plan (see the link above), which has been provided to all MPs, members of the press assembled in the gallery today, and the general public, details the extent of our policies within each of the four strategies. I will provide a brief overview now. 

As the House already knows, the Government has committed record investment in the pursuit of finding a cure for HIV. We are allocating £80 million pounds to the UK Medical Research Council and NHS to overhaul the existing research effort. This unprecedented increase in funding will make it easier for Britain's doctors and scientists to have the necessary funding to step up their research efforts, and to lead the international effort with our allies in the United Nations and World Health Organization to find a cure. The Government is also expanding our existing education and awareness campaign, which has been wildly successful, by putting millions of pounds of new funding into the scheme. 

Critically, we are ensuring that every person who wants to be tested to see if they have the disease will have the right and ability to do so. Funding is being made available to equip every hospital and clinic with the tests and supplies needed to guarantee every British person can be tested, and we will be encouraging families to have themselves tested at their annual check up. We are also making more places available at hospitals and clinics dedicated to the longterm care of those suffering from HIV-AIDS. Additionally, as we eagerly await a cure to this evil disease, we are implementing interim prevention measures to reduce the spread of the disease. These proposals, implemented jointly between myself and the Home Secretary, are designed to reach at-risk populations and reduce the frequency of dangerous behavior that could increase the spread of HIV. While some may appear somewhat unorthodox, or even radical by the standards of this Government, they are rooted in evidence and come directly from the non-partisan recommendations made by the ACDM's report. 

This disease is an enemy all of us can commit to defeating. This is a crisis that all of us must join together to solve. And those effected are good, decent people that we must all rally around and support. This is just the beginning of the Government's commitment to eradicate HIV-AIDS, and I am incredibly confident in the steps we are taking. Mr. Speaker, I commend this statement to the House. 

I would be more than happy to take any questions from Members of Parliament.
Mr. Speaker,

I thank the Honourable Gentleman for his statement today.

The most crucial point I make today is that the Opposition welcomes the package of announcements brought forward by the government today. This is a vital moment and the government has stepped up to the task - often too slowly, often after a few setbacks and resignations, but we as a nation are where we are supposed to be at this point in the crisis and I thank the Health Secretary for that and for his personal efforts. The government's information campaign and the funding it has put forward in this budget has and will undoubtedly save lives. Mr. Speaker, that's more Britons working and contributing. But more importantly it's fewer families torn apart, more people alive to pursue their dreams and to live out their lives happily as they should. That impact should never be overstated.

Of course, we must press the government where it gets wrong or where we as an Opposition feel it can do more. And in a crisis like this, it's crucial we have both Opposition and government willing to collaborate in the national interest.

We always see a lot of strong, passionate language from the Health Secretary. Everything is quite grandiose. But in a public health crisis, it's crucial we communicate to the British public in simple terms: fighting this virus is not a battle between good and evil. It is not a war. Those we lose aren't soldiers. They are ordinary British people who have been swept up in the greatest public health crisis of our time. It's important we put framing on those terms. We have heard a lot from the Secretary of State about how we have taken great strides in this battle. We must be honest about what the government is doing: following the science and common sense. One also fears the British public may feel there is an underwhelming gulf between the rhetoric and that reality. 

There are still steps the government can make their response more comprehensive. In the House, the Secretary of State initially did not back calls for schools to be part of our response. Once it was communicated to him that we needed our response to be present in as many avenues as possible and that it is crucial we ensure children are safeguarded and presented with the facts but nothing else, we saw some movement. However, the role of schools in this response have been completely absent in the government's plan.

But it is crucial this House acknowledges that for children to be effectively safeguarded and for our approach to be as comprehensive as possible, we need to ensure this government continues proactively communicating with public health professionals, teachers, parents and scientists to ensure we can find a solution in our schools where we can balance the role and concerns of parents while ensuring that vital safeguarding is in place. 

There continues to be a one pronged approach in other areas, too, Mr. Speaker. We know that most transmission of HIV in this country is done so through unprotected sex, outside of prisons and that the crux of our response has to be this level of prevention. While the government has addressed these three key areas, they have not received the focus they deserve as the government's focus is on exchange through needle usage and on finding a cure. Whilst these are absolutely crucial, Mr. Speaker, we have heard nothing about the promotion, distribution and accessibility of condoms Mr. Speaker, except in prisons, and as a trial.

And even then there are flaws in the plan. Why does there need to be a trial, Mr. Speaker? I anticipate the Secretary of State will make clear this is to follow the science. But we know the science makes clear that condom usage decreases if not eliminates HIV transmission. The government knows this too - with Ministers declaring the distribution of condoms in prisons as a means to tackle HIV "paramount" and a "no brainer." And yet the government dithers in the face of pressure from its regressive backbenches who do not wish to follow the science or safeguard the British people. It is time for the government to not just trial and delay, it is time for the government to act on this now to prevent a HIV-AIDS crisis building in our prisons and then spreading outside of them.

There is also a lot of focus on a cure. Mr. Speaker, the opposition - naturally - does not oppose the government's push for a cure. But for there to be a comprehensive approach we need each layer of that approach given equal priority. That prioritising is what will save more lives in the long term. The scientists have made it clear that due to the inherently unpredictable nature of the virus, a cure may tragically be out of reach for a long time. The government also has to face up to the simple fact that a cure may not be in reach ever.

That does not mean we give up trying, Mr. Speaker. But to save more lives in the short term we need to focus on treatment and on prevention. And yet over a third of the government's spending proposals today focus on a cure. Eighty percent of its research spending focuses on a cure. And the Secretary of State mentions a cure twice as much as he does prevention in his statement. Mr. Speaker, this is valiant from the government and we will support its efforts in eradicating the virus completely - but we are worried it could fall victim to its own ambition, and that it looks too ahead in the long term to take simple, life saving steps in the short. 

Finally, we must recognise that this crisis is a global one, not one unique to Britain. To truly take on the virus we need to ensure a global approach is taken: a cure is unlikely to be found unless we have all hands on deck from the global scientific community, and successful prevention will be easier if our friends and neighbours take the right approach as the government has today. The Right Honourable Gentleman has mentioned the World Health Organisation but we have learned little else on how the government plans to lead on the world stage, ensure our allies are taking the right steps and how a truly international approach will be taken to this international crisis.

Mr. Speaker, these have been vital and life saving steps. But now is not the time to pat ourselves on the back. To truly ensure the British people are protected from this virus, the government needs an approach that is more comprehensive, responsive and collaborative. I hope that when the time comes for the government to make the right calls, it will continue to do so.

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