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Record demand for sexual health services ‘puts huge pressure on councils’

The Local Government Association warned record demand for sexual health services in England has seen visits to clinics reach 3.3 million a year (Lynne Cameron/PA) Photo: PA Archive/PA Images

Record demand for sexual health services in England has seen visits to clinics reach 3.3 million a year, putting the system under huge pressure, council leaders have warned.

The Local Government Association, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, said the surge in demand is happening at the same time as cuts to funding for councils’ vital public health services.

It said the latest figures show there were 3,323,275 attendances at sexual health clinics in England in 2017 – up 13% on the 2,940,779 attendances in 2013, and the equivalent of an extra 210 a day, or 1,471 a week.

The total number of sexual health screens – tests for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV – has risen by nearly a fifth (18%) during this period, from 1,513,288 in 2013 to 1,778,306 in 2017.

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While councils are pleased people are taking greater personal responsibility for their sexual health, they said this is putting a severe strain on resources.

The LGA said that Government cuts to councils’ public health budgets has left local authorities struggling to meet increased demand for sexual health services.

Some people are having to be turned away from clinics because all appointments for that day are fully booked.

Councils are warning that it will be hugely challenging to maintain services at the current level because budgets have not kept pace with growing demand.

The LGA said it is urging the Government to reverse £600 million in public health cuts to help councils meet rising demand for sexual health services and prevent people from experiencing potentially longer waiting times and a reduced quality of service.

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Councillor Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “While it’s great to see a huge increase in people taking their sexual health seriously, this rising demand is pushing some councils’ sexual health services to peak capacity levels which are not sustainable in the long-term.

“With capacity and resources already being stretched to the limit, clinics are reporting an increase in the number of lengthy delays and people having to be turned away as appointments are fully booked.

“Demand for sexual health services has risen successively for the past five years and there is a real risk of waiting times increasing and patient experience deteriorating.

“Cuts to public health funding need to be reversed as this could affect councils’ ability to meet further increases in demand and respond to unforeseen outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections.

“While it’s good news that diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections have fallen, it will be hard to maintain this progress with some sexual health services at breaking point.”

Dr Olwen Williams, president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), said: “Cuts to sexual health funding have come at the worst possible time.

“Record demand for services, dramatic increases in syphilis and gonorrhoea diagnoses and the spread of treatment-resistant infection in recent years mean that many services are struggling to cope, despite valiant efforts from staff.

“Further cuts would almost certainly tip them over the edge and we therefore urgently call upon the Government to reverse its damaging approach to sexual health and provide services with the support they desperately need.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We have a strong track record on sexual health with teenage pregnancies at an all-time low and sexually transmitted infections continuing to fall.

“Sexual health services and tests are now more widely available online which means people can get tested at a time that suits them – over 11,000 diagnoses from online tests were reported last year.

“We are giving £16 billion to local authorities for public health services over the current spending period, as they are best placed to understand and meet the public health needs of their local communities.”