People with HIV could miss out on COVID vaccines unless action is taken, campaigners warn

There are calls for HIV clinics to be given access to refer people for COVID-19 vaccines, over fears some could miss out on jabs if GPs are left in charge.

People with HIV are automatically classed as at-risk for COVID-19, meaning they will be eligible for the vaccine ahead of under-60s in the upcoming phase of the roll-out, after over-65s are all vaccinated.

However, in order to get a vaccine in England, those at risk need to be referred by their GPs.

Due to the still-pervasive stigma around the virus, up to a quarter of people living with HIV may not have told their GP about their status and might be unwilling to do so, meaning they could miss out on a crucial invite to get a jab.

Specialist HIV clinics, which are in charge of managing care for people with HIV, keep detailed patients records but are not currently able to arrange COVID jabs for their patients.

Campaigners say the omission runs the risk of vulnerable people failing to get vaccinated if they are not invited to do so, while others face a difficult choice over whether to risk disclosing their status to ask for a referral.

Health secretary pressed to let clinics coordinate jabs.

Stephen Doughty, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on HIV and AIDS, had asked in January how people living with HIV “will access the COVID-19 vaccine if they have not disclosed their HIV status to their local GP”, but his written question has received no response.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth also raised the issue in parliament, asking whether the government would “ensure that people living with HIV are able to access vaccination at their HIV clinic”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has faced questions over the approach

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has faced questions over the approach (Getty/Tolga Akmen)

Ian Green, chief executive at Terrence Higgins Trust, told PinkNews: “We cannot let HIV stigma stand in the way of people living with HIV getting access to the potentially life-saving covid vaccine.

“Despite huge advances in science, we know misinformation and stigma continue to linger in many parts of our healthcare system. The fear of discrimination results in many people living with HIV not disclosing their HIV status to their GP.

“While we are determined to do all we can to rid the healthcare system of this stigma, the health secretary can do something about this by giving HIV clinicians the ability to administer this jab when phase six of the roll-out starts.

“We all want this vaccine to be in the arms of people as soon as possible but no one can be left behind in the nation’s efforts to end the COVID pandemic.”

Pressed on the issue in a Times Radio interview, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said he will look at the problem.

He acknowledged: “Some people don’t want for all sorts of reasons to share that sort of information with their GP and I will look at a workaround with the NHS… to see if we can accommodate people if they don’t want to share that information.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told PinkNews: “Vaccines are the way out of this pandemic and we want as many people as possible to get vaccinated.

“We are encouraging everyone to make sure they are registered with a GP and have made them aware of any health conditions that mean they fall under the priority groupings set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

“As the vaccines minister has said, we are working with NHS England to do everything in our power to make sure we get the vaccine to all priority groups.”

My GP doesn’t know I have HIV, how can I get a vaccine?

People whose GPs are aware of their status should be contacted when the next phase of the rollout begins. Those who are willing to disclose their HIV status should ensure that their GPs are aware of it.

However, there is currently no clear way for someone who does not wish to disclose their status to get a vaccine referral.

Independent vaccine guidance published by the British HIV Association (BHIVA) says: “Currently vaccines are being offered in some hospitals, some pharmacies and in local vaccination centres run by GPs.

“Vaccines are not available in your local HIV clinic. You need to be registered with a GP in order to get a vaccination.

“Most people living with HIV are in priority group 6 which, for many people, means they are eligible for vaccination before other people of their age. However, if your GP does not know that you are HIV positive, you will not be offered the vaccination early.

“We have asked the national vaccine team to clarify how people who are not registered with a GP will be able to get the vaccine.

“We will update you on this and on any new plans to make the vaccine made more widely available from different places.”

BHIVA adds: “We strongly recommend that everyone who is offered the vaccine accepts it.”