Thursday, 1 April 2021
Department of Health
331. To ask the Minister for Health if he will take immediate steps to reopen the gay men’s health service based at the Meath primary care centre which has been closed for over a year; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that the clinic is one of the busiest sexual health services and the only one specifically serving LGBTQ+ persons and is the only public sexual health service that has not reopened since March 2020; the plans for its reopening; his plans to set up new sexual health testing centres nationally; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17798/21]
The COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented interruption to normal healthcare activity in 2020/2021, affecting the provision of all healthcare services including public STI clinics and the GMHS.
Over the last year, the HSE has reconfigured STI services, establishing online booking systems and providing virtual appointments, in order to support STI service provision in line with the social distancing and infection prevention control requirements due to COVID-19.
Public STI clinics have prioritised those with symptoms and who require treatment, in order to treat active infections and minimise onward transmission. The GMHS website and other resources such as www.man2man.ie and www.sexualwellbeing.ie are regularly updated to reflect current service delivery and to signpost users to the HSE list of approved STI and PrEP services.
All PrEP service providers have maintained existing PrEP service users in the programme, providing virtual consultations, postal prescriptions and attendance for screening or treatment where necessary. It is difficult to predict the level of any number of infectious diseases including STIs that will occur post pandemic, but with the resumption of normal service, there is an expectation that increased testing will bring increased diagnoses.
The HSE is continuing to progress a number of initiatives that aim to reduce the level of HIV and STIs nationally and improve access to services for those in need.
- The promotion of safer sex messages to the public via a range of social media platforms including twitter, facebook and Instagram.
- During the pandemic, the public has been advised about STI clinic restrictions and encouraged to consider safer sexual practices to reduce the risk of HIV and STI transmission.
- Those who are symptomatic are advised to contact a clinic directly for an emergency appointment.
- Guidance was issued around sex and COVID-19 which advised the public to limit numbers of partners to reduce transmission of HIV/STIs as well as COVID-19 during the pandemic.
- Condoms are freely available to NGO partners and service providers via the National Condom Distribution service and a number of NGOs established postal services to make condoms and lubricant accessible to service users throughout the pandemic while venues were closed.
- Free rapid HIV testing is available in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick through community NGO partners HIV Ireland, Sexual Health Centre Cork, Sexual Health West and GOSHH. NGO partners have adapted their services and are currently providing free rapid HIV testing from their offices or alternative venues.
- STI/HIV testing is currently available through a HSE home STI testing pilot project in Dublin, Cork and Kerry. Tests are being made available in a phased manner to ensure there is sufficient capacity in local clinics for service users who may need follow-up treatment or support.
At the outset of Covid-19, staff in the Gay Men’s Health Service were reassigned, by reason of necessity, to other HSE services. Some staff continue to be redeployed to Covid-19 services, including to the COVID-19 vaccination programme which commenced in recent months. COVID-19 has placed increased demands on HSE services which are required to be delivered in accordance with current restrictions.
Community Healthcare East re-opened the GMHS in January 2021 on a phased basis, and in line with Government and HSE Guidelines. Existing PrEP users continue to be seen in the GMHS. The Clinic’s Consultant in Infectious Diseases (Gay Men’s Health service (GMHS) and GUIDE Clinic, St James’s Hospital) and other doctors are providing virtual consultations and PrEP service users attend the GMHS for STI screening and blood testing. Those with diagnosed STIs, or requiring Hepatitis and/or HPV vaccine, continue to be treated in GMHS also.
Previously the GMHS relied heavily on agency staff. This is no longer the situation. The funding allocated to the HSE in respect of the GMHS PrEP programme was received in 2020 as recurring funding. This has facilitated a recruitment campaign to fill the posts for the GMHS PrEP programme to commence in the latter part of 2020. This recruitment is ongoing.
HSE Community Healthcare East will continue to reinstate services in the GMHS on a phased basis and in line with the HSE’s Safe Return to Health Services. HSE Community Healthcare East has made every effort to restore, and maintain services as far as possible and will continue to do so, subject to current demand for health services, and subject to resources available.
Decisions concerning the provision of sexual health services are made in line with the objectives and strategic vision of the National Sexual Health Strategy 2015 - 2020 (NSHS), which aims to improve sexual health and wellbeing and reduce negative sexual health outcomes by ensuring that everyone living in Ireland has access to high quality sexual health information, education and services throughout their lives.
The current Strategy was intended to cover the period from 2015 – 2020, but has now been extended to 2021. It is the intention of my Department to conduct stakeholder consultations and a review of the NSHS this year. The outcome of the consultations and the review will determine the future direction of the Strategy.
It should be noted that the HSE is currently piloting a free home STI/HIV testing service, supported by the Sláintecare Integration Fund, in Dublin, Cork and Kerry. The first phase of tests was made available early January 2021. As a result of very high initial demand for the service, tests will now be made available in a phased manner to ensure there is sufficient capacity in local clinics for service users who may need follow-up treatment or support.
Decisions in relation to the manner and location of future sexual health services will be made in the context of the above factors.