opinion

'It's a Sin is a sad reminder that attitudes towards HIV remain stuck in the '80s'

The words that define the stigma of the 1980s but is yet to be fully lifted, especially for those living with HIV, writes Wes Streeting MP.

2021-01-25

Russell T Davies’ latest drama, It’s a Sin, brought laughter and tears in equal measure when the first episode of the five-part series aired on Friday night (22 January).

People cannot fail to be moved by way Neil Patrick Harris' character, Henry Coltrane, brings such joy and acceptance to young Colin Morris-Jones (played beautifully by Callum Scott Howells) who has just moved from Wales to London.

Henry not only protects Colin from the unwelcome advances of the Savile Row shop proprietor where they both work, but takes him out for a drink and lets the boy from the valleys say out loud what he has long kept locked up inside: that he would one day like to have a boyfriend. Harris’ character tells him not to worry, he ‘won’t tell anyone’.

Neil Patrick Harris (left) as Henry Coltrane and Callum Scott Howells as Colin Morris-Jones in It's a Sin (Image: Channel 4)

The awful irony – and skilful writing of the author of Queer as Folk, Cucumber and Years and Years – is that when Henry becomes bedridden with an Aids-related illness it is Colin that tells no one about Henry’s diagnosis or his untimely death. 

The terror and stigma of being gay in Britain the 1980s is unrecognisable today – even with hate crime on the rise against LGBT+ people. But we’ve not made nearly enough progress in challenging HIV-related stigma. 

In the run-up to World Aids Day 2020, the Oral Health Foundation claimed that HIV can be passed on by using the same toothbrush as someone living with HIV, despite the fact that HIV cannot be passed on through saliva. Thankfully this was quickly retracted when the chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, Ian Green, took public umbrage at the claim and forced a retraction.

If doctors are prepared to make this claim in 2020, it is hardly surprising that as recently as 2016, 30% of gay and bi men believed this falsehood. You simply can’t catch HIV through saliva – it can’t be said enough. 

HIV/Aids treatment and outlooks today are so different from the Aids of the 1980s. Not enough people understand this. The massive leap forward in the drugs available for treatment have given people living with HIV a real quality of life. Those on effective medication cannot pass on the virus and the rollout of the HIV prevention pill PrEP mean it is possible that England, Scotland and Wales could end new cases of HIV by 2030. 

 

Wes Streeting is the Labour MP for Ilford North. He served on the HIV Commission until its final report in December 2020

I was recently a member of the HIV Commission established by Terrence Higgins Trust, National AIDS Trust and the Elton John Aids Foundation. We had one aim: to come up with a plan to make sure that no one has to hear the news they have HIV by the end of the decade.

With huge support and good will, not least from those living with HIV, we have gone even further and provided government with a route map to England becoming the first country in the world to meet this ambitious goal. 

It’s not just policies we need to change, we must change hearts and minds, too. Too many people living with HIV told us that they were most likely to be on the receiving end of HIV related stigma from a healthcare professional. Our first and second recommendations – of 20 – seek to tackle this head on. 

In It’s a Sin, Colin is not allowed to visit Henry without wearing PPE. Henry puts Colin at ease by saying it is for his benefit, not his protege’s protection. The nonsense of this is laid bare when the hospital refuse to enter the room with Henry’s food, instead discarding it outside the door for the very sick patient to collect when no one is about. 

When the HIV Commission visited Birmingham, days before the first Covid-19 lockdown, someone giving evidence told us of a recent stay in hospital where two nurses talked over him about the need to ‘double glove’ due to his status. Commissioners were open-mouthed when we heard this. Surely this behaviour belonged to the bygone era of Davies’ drama, not the modern NHS.

There are so many brilliant people working in the NHS who have been instrumental in changing policies and practices in the NHS for people with HIV. But watching the experience of Harris’ character is a mirror to society today, not just a window into the health service then. We need to root out bigoted attitudes and stigmatising behaviours. We expect better from healthcare professionals. The HIV Commission has put NHS England on notice – we expect real action. Now.

For lots of people, It’s a Sin transported them back in time to a painful period through which they had lived, loved and lost. For my generation, born in the 80s, we watched Davies’ latest series with memories of watching his seminal series Queer as Folk in secret for fear of being caught by our parents.

If I had been told then that within 10 years section 28 would be abolished, gay couples would be allowed to adopt, trans people given gender recognition certificates and civil partnerships created, I would never have believed you.

In the 10 years that follow Davies’ latest drama we can end new cases of HIV.  It should only be a surprise if we fail. It starts with everyone knowing their status – with National HIV Testing Week on 1-7 February, now is one of the rare windows when everyone in the country can order a free and easy test, send discreetly to their home. Order a test at startswithme.org.uk.

By this summer, the government will have an HIV Action Plan. If it is to be worth the paper it is written on, it must include opt-out HIV testing – normalised in A&E and routine when the NHS is otherwise undertaking blood test. PrEP must be negotiated into the Core GP Contract and available in local pharmacies. Mental health services must support people who are newly diagnosed.

Alongside all of this, every government body should do its bit – as an employer, service provider or community leader – to fight HIV-related stigma laid bare by the It’s A Sin cast and our Commission’s generous witnesses.  

Russell T Davies has written a powerful story about our painful past. It’s up to us to write a brighter story for the future. Together, we can end new HIV transmissions in England within this decade. 

Wes Streeting is the Labour MP for Ilford North. He served on the HIV Commission until its final report in December 2020.

Know your HIV status. Order your free HIV self-test kit from Terrence Higgins Trust, available via the It Starts With Me website startswithme.org.uk.