NHS testing and treatment services in London for conditions such as Syphilis and Gonorrhoea are being jeopardised by plans to reconfigure sexual health services.
Despite a seven-month delay in the roll-out of a new online NHS service designed to replace face-to-face consultations, sexual health clinics have continued to close. The RCN has demanded there be no further closures until the online service is successfully up and running.
The closures and staff losses will leave individuals with complex and urgent care needs without adequate access to services. Nurses warn that delays in diagnosis or treatment may mean that more people are put at risk. To cope with the public health cuts and reduced capacity, some trusts have begun closing clinics early, with one warning that it is no longer able to meet the 48 hour target – the standard at which providers are expected to see patients after an appointment is made.
London’s NHS is operating with fewer clinics and staff despite unprecedented demand. According to Public Health England, London has the highest STI rate in England, 79 per cent higher than any other region. Of the top 20 local authorities in England with the highest rates of STI diagnoses, 17 were in London. Cases of Syphilis in the capital in between 2012 and 2016 have increased by 104 per cent. The uncertainty has seen specialist staff walk away from jobs in sexual health and patients with developed symptoms now facing longer waits and journey times for treatment.
The greatest reduction has been in ‘tier 3’ sexual health services, which treat patients with more complex, symptomatic conditions – such as HIV, Syphilis and Gonorrhoea. In the London boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Haringey and Islington, four such clinics have closed and up to 50 staff voluntarily left their posts rather than wait for the axe to fall. Another 25 are facing redundancy.
In Lambeth and Southwark, the overall number of clinics was halved last year and in Wandsworth the closure of the integrated hub at St George’s and its transfer to Bolingbroke Health Centre and Balham Health Centre means that a number of specialist sexual health nurses and staff have decided to find other employment.
North East London – covering the areas of Barking and Dagenham, Havering, Redbridge, Newham, Waltham Forest, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and the City - has reduced its ‘tier 3’ services from 3 to 1.
The Sexual Health Transformation Programme brings together all 29 London boroughs into a joint commissioning process and is being delivered by the City of London Corporation in response to funding cuts.
RCN London Operational Manager Jude Diggins, said:
“Closing face-to-face services before the online system is successfully up and running is creating dangerous sexual health risks in the capital. The chaos created now means specialist sexual health staff are voting with their feet and patients are having increasing difficulty accessing treatment that used to be easily available in their local community. The sensible option would have been to halt the closure of services until the online service was ready
“London has the highest rate of STIs anywhere in the country, yet the government unashamedly continues to cut the capital’s public health budget. Sexual health services should be given the priority and funding they need. It is unacceptable to make those who need vital sexual health treatment pay for illogical cuts."