Former Northern Ireland health minister branded ‘homophobe’ for anti-PrEP diatribe

Jim Wells MLA walks through the Great Hall at Stormont

Northern Ireland’s former health minister Jim Wells has come under fire for attacking the provision of HIV-preventing drug treatments.

PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a method of HIV prevention via a daily antiretroviral pill that is proven to drastically cut people’s risk of infection.

The drug is already available for at-risk groups including men who have sex with men in Scotland, while large-scale public trials are ongoing in England and Wales

A trial site was also announced in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday (September 11), but the country’s former health minister lashed out at the decision on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback show.

Jim Wells MLA for South Down (Paul McErlane/Getty)

The former DUP official, who was the minister in charge of the Department of Health from 2014 to 2015, said: “It was [talked about when I was health minister] and I had grave reservations.

“Can you imagine a situation where a drug company came up with a cure for lung cancer as a result of smoking… would we make that drug universally available to all smokers, or else would we continue to urge smokers to continue to give up?

“I think it would be the latter, and what we’re saying here to people is, ‘If you do behave in a way that is taking huge risks, we will spend a large amount of taxpayers’ money so that you can take this drug to prevent you from becoming infected.'”

Talkback presenter William Crawley challenged Wells over whether an equivalent drug to prevent lung cancer that cost £30-40 a month per person would really be withheld from the public.

Bottles of antiretroviral drug Truvada are displayed at Jack's Pharmacy on November 23, 2010 in San Anselmo, California. A study published by the New England Journal of Medicine showed that men who took the daily antiretroviral pill Truvada significantly reduced their risk of contracting HIV.

Antiretroviral drugs like Truvada can prevent the spread of HIV. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Wells insisted: “What we would do is continue our programme urging people not to smoke in the first place.

“My concern would be you would [give them the drug], and people would say, ‘I’ll continue to smoke because obviously now… they’re going to give me a drug anyhow to prevent it.’

“The whole premise of public health is to urge people to make wise lifestyle choices. Not to make unwise choices and then expect the taxpayer to pick up the tab to pay for recovery processes.”

Wells has a poor record on LGBT issues. As health minister he refused to lift the country’s permanent ban on blood donation by gay men.

Truvada (Getty)

The politician has also previously branded Belfast Pride parade “repugnant,” called for LGBT events “promoting alternative lifestyles” to be banned from the Northern Ireland Assembly buildings, and vowed to boycott Primark because of its LGBT collection.

Greg Owen of PrEP advocacy group I Want PrEP Now challenged Wells’ rhetoric and accused him of being homophobic.

He told the BBC: “Are we seriously going to have someone who is formerly in a public office equate sex, which is one of the driving forces of life, to a health-impacting issue like smoking?

“My question to Jim is, are you saying no-one should have sex, or just the kind of sex that the people who are most disproportionately impacted by HIV are having?

“Is this a homophobic thing? Come on, Jim! This is outrageous, it’s 2018, we don’t need this kind of debate.”