Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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WEC calls on Ministers to ‘radically increase’ sexual health services funding amid ‘red flag’ STI data on young people

The Government has “failed to heed” warnings over adequately funding sexual health services amid “deeply concerning” data on STIs in young people, the Women and Equalities Committee has said.

The Committee finds Sexual health services (SHSs) to be under severe pressure, funding has reduced while data for 2022, the most recent available, shows that rates of gonorrhoea are the highest since records began in 1918 with young people most affected. In the same year syphilis cases reached a peak not seen since 1948, the cross-party committee cautioned.

Such data “should be a wake-up call” to the Government, local authorities, sexual health services, reproductive health professionals and others in the NHS, and those delivering Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) in schools, WEC concluded.

Setting out a series of wide-ranging recommendations in its report entitled ‘The prevalence of sexually transmitted infections in young people and other high-risk groups’, WEC called on the Government to “radically increase” the public health grant to local authorities to a level that allows SHSs to operate effectively and meet local need.

This must include the provision of face-to-face consultations to those who need them, within 48 hours, and universal access to free postal STI testing. Booking appointments and access to online testing should be made available via smartphone app, the report added.

In schools, the report warned of compelling evidence that relationships and sex education (RSE) is “failing young people” who, in the absence of authoritative advice, were learning about sex and sexual health from online sources, social media and pornography, exposing children to an unacceptable risk of harm.

The Committee called on the Government, school leaders and Ofsted to place a greater priority on the teaching of RSE in schools, and to do more to make the positive case for sex education - to help parents to see that the provision of information on STIs is a safeguard rather than a threat. The Committee repeated its previous calls for the teaching of RSE to continue up to the age of 18.

Effective STI prevention measures exist in the use of condoms but their “use is falling”, the Committee warned, as it recommended the Government must increase its promotion of the benefits of condom use, using a tailored approach to those groups at greatest risk of STI infection. The benefits of condom use must be a key part of the curriculum, it added.

The report also urged the Government to step up its efforts to increase take up of the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, including as a first step, by targeting the cohort of children who may have missed out due to the covid-19 pandemic, adding that SHSs should also be able to deliver the vaccine to all those who would benefit from receiving it.

WEC called on the Government to fund a targeted public information campaign on safe sex, with a focus on STI prevention among young people and other groups at high risk of infection in areas with the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections and where rates of diagnosis are rising fastest.

Such a campaign, it added should be codesigned by those communities, should normalise discussion of sexual behaviour and be promoted in those online spaces young people are increasingly turning to for advice.

The report called on the Government to work with the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health, NHS leaders, the Local Government Association (LGA) and education bodies to develop the coherent, cross-sector strategy on sexual health it committed to in 2019.

Chair comment

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP said: “Sexual health services are at breaking point. They are underfunded and in many cases unable to provide the services their local area needs. The 2022 data on STIs is a red flag and should encourage everyone to do better. It is not sustainable and an obvious false economy to substantially reduce funding for sexual health services (SHSs) during a period of increasing demand upon them.

“There is also compelling evidence that Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in schools is inadequate, including in relation to contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), with nearly half of children saying education in this area is so poor they rely on finding information for themselves online. This exposes children to an unacceptable risk of harm.

“The HPV vaccine is a remarkable step forwards in preventing HPV infection, the potential to be able to almost eliminate cervical cancer in this country is a remarkable opportunity. It is a tragedy that so many are missing out on receiving the vaccine and the vital protection it provides.

“A cross sector strategy on sexual health is urgently needed to arrest and reverse the trend in sexually transmitted infections, to improve take up rates of the HPV vaccine and to address the troubling threat of antibiotic resistance. In 2019, the Government committed to delivering a strategy on improving the nation's sexual health. It is unacceptable that five years later no progress has been made.”

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