Tories need to start taking monkeypox seriously before it’s too late, shadow health secretary says

Wes Streeting.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting writes for PinkNews on the urgent need for action to tackle monkeypox.

With ministers either putting their feet up on holiday or speaking only to the Conservative Party members who will choose our next prime minister, Britain is left with a government that is not even in the office, let alone in power.

There are serious consequences of the paralysis in Whitehall, including the failure to get a grip on the outbreak of monkeypox.

More than 3,000 cases of the virus have now been confirmed across the UK. The World Health Organization has declared it a public health emergency of international concern, the most serious designation of a disease. Sexual health charities and LGBT+ groups from across the political spectrum have raised fears that, without action now, the disease could become endemic. Yet the government is asleep at the wheel.

As was shown in the early days of the COVID pandemic, clear and accurate guidance needs to be provided to the public as well as information on vaccine eligibility, so that no one is afraid to come forward.

Efforts must be made to reach those most at risk, in this case gay, bisexual men and men who have sex with men.

That means getting messages to these groups via social media, apps, and queer media. It ought to be the health secretary writing for PinkNews readers about this, not his shadow.

Gloved hands preparing a vaccine on a pink background

The UK is rolling out a smallpox vaccine for use against monkeypox – but stocks are about to run out. (Getty/PinkNews)

With just a few thousand vaccines left in the UK, the July shipment has still not arrived and there are already worries about the additional doses due in September.

We face weeks of lost time when we should be getting more people protected. Hospitals are already having to cancel drop-ins due to short supply.

While The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV says a minimum of 250,000 doses of vaccine are needed now, the government has secured roughly half that figure. Officials are still awaiting ministerial authorisation to set about purchases the rest. Somebody needs to get a grip.

Of course, this outbreak caught all of Europe by surprise. But the choices made over 12 years of Conservative governments has left us in a worse position to respond to monkeypox today. Nadine Dorries admitted that the Conservatives’ pandemic preparation was “wanting and inadequate”. This not only hampered the NHS’s ability to respond to COVID, but left it with record-long waiting lists today.

Campaigners similarly fear the knock-on effects of monkeypox. Local sexual health services, which have suffered a fall in funding of 14 per cent since 2015/16, are reportedly having to curtail other duties to respond to this new threat, including PrEP provision.

Monkeypox cases surge in UK

Monkeypox lesions. (MarioGuti/Getty Images)

It would be unacceptable if lack of capacity in services leads to preventable transmission and unnecessary infection of HIV.

We have a vaccine that is effective against monkeypox, if only the necessary doses can be secured. The government must step up and show it is meeting this issue with the urgency required. It is not good enough to wait for the conclusion of the leadership election and hand this over to the next government.

The UK government should be taking a leadership role in the global effort against monkeypox, starting with convening the manufacturer of the vaccine and health leaders from other countries that are experiencing outbreaks, in order to agree a plan to rapidly increase supply.

There must now be a public information campaign commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care and working with the voluntary sector and those who have experienced monkeypox to reach those most at risk. It is totally unacceptable that this job is being left to LGBTQ+ communities to spread information themselves through messaging apps like WhatsApp.

In our “Learning to live well with COVID” plan, published in January, Labour called for a standing army of volunteers to be ready to deliver vaccines when further rollouts were needed. These volunteers could supplement the work of sexual health clinics, taking some of the pressure off and ensuring vital tasks like PrEP provision are able to continue.

The Labour Party stands ready to help in any way possible.