After a year of uncertainty, it has been confirmed that Terrence Higgins Trust’s HIV services in Oxford will end this month.
Local HIV support and prevention services provided by Terrence Higgins Trust will come to an end this month, as the services will no longer be commissioned by local healthcare decision makers.
The services that will be lost include specialist counselling and advice for people living with HIV, and HIV prevention work in the community.
In March last year, more than 1,100 local people signed a petition to keep the services open, after Oxford Council announced their plans to cut the funding.
At the 11th hour, the Oxford Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) plugged the gap for another year meaning the services have continued until now.
However, despite year-long discussions with Terrence Higgins Trust, the CCG has been unable to commit further to supporting people living with HIV.
The building in Rectory Road, Oxford will close this week, with staff offering online support to service users until the services formally end on Sunday 30 April.
Adam Wilkinson, Director of Services at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “We are so saddened to see the closure of these services after over 20 years of supporting local people living with HIV.
“We have spent the past year engaging with the commissioners to try to find a solution to save the services beyond the year. However sadly a longer-term solution could not be reached and they were unable to prioritise HIV by giving a viable financial commitment to continue the services.
“We are concerned for the wellbeing of people living with and at risk of HIV in Oxfordshire. The advice and counselling services are a lifeline for people living with HIV locally, many of whom are facing immense financial and emotional hardship.
“Meanwhile it is short sighted to lose HIV prevention services as these protect people from a stigmatised and lifelong condition, and for every person we prevent from getting HIV, the NHS saves £360,000 in lifetime treatment costs.”
Rory Kilalea (pictured above), 55, is a part time lecturer in film and performing arts. He has been living with HIV for 15 years and used the HIV support services provided by Terrence Higgins Trust in Oxford.
Rory said: “Like many others in my generation who are living with HIV, I do get affected by loneliness. My partner died three and a half years ago, and the Terrence Higgins Trust centre became a sanctuary to me in some ways. They were my support system, I knew they cared and would be there to help if things got difficult.
“Because of the cuts to councils and NHS, mainstream services have become impersonal and you can feel like a digit or a cipher. It’s a real downer for me and anybody of an older age. You end up having to disclose your HIV status to different people over and over again, there’s no continuity of knowledge. There’s also no guarantee that they will have an up-to-date understanding of HIV.”
Reflecting on the prevention services that are being lost, Rory said: “Oxford is a student city. HIV needs to be at the forefront in this town so I find it saddening that a young person wanting to pop in for an HIV test will find it much harder now. What message does that send to young people?”
There are over 440 people living with HIV in Oxfordshire, according to Public Health England. The region also has high rates of late diagnosis – half (50.8 per cent) of those diagnosed last year were diagnosed late. It is unclear what HIV prevention services will remain in place in Oxford after the contract finishes.
Meanwhile, people living with HIV who are in need of support will be urged to use mainstream services from Monday 1 May. Terrence Higgins Trust will also offer online counselling through the MyHIV online support service, and its free, confidential helpline THT Direct, will remain available to all who need it in Oxfordshire.
Susie*, from Oxford, said: “When I was first diagnosed with HIV 10 years ago, Terrence Higgins Trust’s team in Oxford were my lifeline. It was my safe haven, where I could finally talk openly and freely about my HIV. I still can’t do that outside of THT, because HIV is so deeply stigmatised.
“To assume that people living with HIV can just use mainstream services like Citizens Advice Bureau is just not realistic. We’re not there yet as a society, particularly in a small, close-knit city like Oxford. I’ve witnessed a shocking lack of awareness about HIV here, even from doctors.
“Where will the newly diagnosed people go now? Without HIV specialist services, people will be too scared to go and see a mainstream service and they won’t get proper help. It is a huge loss for the community.”
“We would like to thank everyone who campaigned locally to save the services,” said Adam. “Because of you, we were at least able to extend the services for another year and support local people during this period.
“We must continue to fight to stop the same thing happening elsewhere. The situation in Oxford is part of an alarming trend across the country of disproportionate cuts to HIV support services, which are increasingly being seen as easy targets during a climate of tight budgets and central government cuts.”
If you are concerned about HIV, ring THT Direct on 0808 802 1221.
* Susie has chosen to remain anonymous and this is not her real name.