Lloyd Russell-Moyle, the Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, stood up in the House of Commons yesterday and told the world that he has HIV. It’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever encountered in the chamber, and I know (from talking about it with him a week or two ago) that he did it with care, consideration, determination, and a passion to make life better and easier for those thousands of others who are living with HIV. His story was movingly told, with a fine human touch, and he richly deserved the ovation he received from his colleagues.
When I made the same statement myself as an MP, nearly 14 years ago, I didn’t do it on the floor of the Commons, but in a newspaper article. The support I was given by colleagues at the time was however entirely similar, and equally warm.
I remember I was trying to emphasise two things when I spoke out. I hoped I had been able to demonstrate – as Lloyd has – that it is perfectly possible to live with HIV and at the same time lead a productive, busy, purposeful life, and make a real contribution to society. The second was that, in a strange kind of way, I had been lucky. I had experienced HIV in a country where I could get the support, advice and medical treatment that I needed, provided by the NHS; there are millions of people around the world for whom none of that is available.
Some things have changed dramatically in those 14 years, and some things have remained stubbornly the same. There is still too much stigma and fear attached to HIV. And far too many people who discover that they are HIV positive think that it’s the end of the world. It isn’t. It’s not a bundle of fun, and it remains a life-threatening if controllable virus, but the example of people like Lloyd standing up and showing that you can live with it, work with it, and overcome the fear and the prejudice while doing so, is invaluable.
Meanwhile, medical progress in response to HIV has of course been remarkable. The various combinations of medication that – by targeting the HIV virus from different directions simultaneously – can hold it effectively at bay have become increasingly sophisticated. And having a range of different combinations available helps also counter any development of drug resistance.
But even more significant has been the emergence of PrEP, the new kid on the block: a preventative medicine that can help to prevent the transmission of HIV in the first place. In the past we had only education, condoms and carefulness to rely on in the attempts to halt the spread of HIV. All of those are still vital, because PrEP is not a cure-all. But it can help enormously– and it may be one of the reasons why levels of HIV infection in the UK are now falling. This is reversing the previous trend, and is hugely important.
There is however a problem, and this was highlighted by Lloyd in his House of Commons speech. PrEP is by no means universally available. There are many parts of the country where it simply isn’t on offer; there’s something of a postcode lottery in operation. And it may get worse: the cuts in our public health budgets highlighted by Lloyd in his speech are likely to exacerbate the problem.
If we are serious about preventing the spread of HIV, and continuing that hopeful progress in steadily rolling back the rate of new infections, we should make sure it is readily accessible everywhere around the country. It’s so much better to stop the infection happening in the first place than having to fight it day in, day out, for the whole of the rest of your life. I know.
Lloyd has not only shown astonishing courage, he has done us all a great service. He has given hope and confidence to thousands of people. He has highlighted the need for continued medical care and treatment of the highest quality. And he has made a forceful argument for the best possible preventative strategies. Bravo.
• Chris Smith is the master of Pembroke College, Oxford, and a Labour peer and a former minister for culture, media and sport