Steve Brine is the MP for Winchester, was Public Health Minister 2016-2019 and the Conservative MP on the HIV Commission
The campaign against AIDS, as it then was, was etched in my mind from childhood. I did not need this new pandemic to recall that chilling yet effective tombstone advert from the 1980s.
Norman Fowler is something of a hero of mine. As Andrew Gimson of the parish reported on earlier this week, when Health Secretary he followed the science when others wanted something far worse. The more I learn about the decisions of those times, the more my respect for him grows.
From 2016-19 I was lucky to serve the party and country as public health minister. I was suddenly in a position to do something to change the modern HIV epidemic. To follow in Fowler’s footsteps.
I engaged, as all good ministers do, with the sector organisations. The Terrence Higgins Trust, National AIDS Trust, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation all lobbied me hard. But not just for retail policies. They had a vision: a country with no new HIV transmissions. They were united in presenting a new scientific possibility: this end to transmissions by 2030. I wanted this for England and took the proposal to my boss, Matt Hancock.
As I told the House of Commons on Tuesday, I was ‘pushing at an open door’. In January 2019, Hancock and I committed England to this ambitious but achievable goal.
On the 32nd World AIDS Day this week, the HIV Commission – on which I subsequently served – issued its final report and recommendations. What followed, for all to see, was the commitment of this Government to that very vision. Conservative minister after Conservative minister reinforced how we wish to see this policy become a practical reality.
Boris Johnson set the tone, becoming the first Prime Minister to pledge to end new transmissions before the end of the decade. Rishi Sunak made the same commitment at the launch of the commission’s recommendations from the floor of the House of Commons putting it in the record in Hansard for perpetuity. At the launch with Elton John, Michael Gove gave a commitment to report annually on progress – one of our key demands.
As if that wasn’t enough, Hancock pledged to work together with the Commission on its ambitious targets – cutting the numbers of people living with undiagnosed HIV by 80 per cent by 2025 – and to increase HIV testing. Lord Bethell, his deputy, told the House of Lords the department would investigate normalising HIV testing. That was all before lunchtime.
Our report had barely been launched for 90 minutes and already recommendation after recommendation was being committed to by my Conservative colleagues. It was a sight to behold. But it turned out the Government was not yet done.
The Speaker kindly granted myself and Wes Streeting, my Labour co-commissioner, an adjournment debate on the HIV Commission’s launch. To everyone’s surprise, the Secretary of State himself took his place at the Despatch Box. He had returned to make yet another commitment: that the HIV Commission would be the basis of a HIV Action Plan, available: “as early next year as is feasible to ensure that the work is high-quality, can be delivered and can set us fair on a credible path to zero new transmissions in 2030.”
He said this was a promise he wanted ‘to make in person’. I was shocked, humbled and filled with pride.
There are many that are cynical about politicians and what we can achieve. Tuesday was not one of those days. A Conservative Government is acting decisively to end an outstanding issue of social injustice in less than a decade is not something to be dismissed.
The work to make it happen starts now. Get this right, my fellow Conservatives, and we could end the five-decade long HIV epidemic ‘on our watch’. Nothing short will now suffice.