The agony of accessing Manchester’s sexual health services
‘Should I just be celibate? Can I just not have a life?’
Dear readers — in the past decade, sexual health has often been treated by the government as a fun extra. When, of course, it’s essential — especially in a city that’s big on singles and students. Earlier this year, Sophie wrote a piece for Novara Media about the monkeypox vaccine rollout, and, as part of her reporting, uncovered a worrying claim from a sexual health expert: that Manchester has the worst sexual health services in England. Today, Mollie delves deeper, and discovers some unsettling evidence in favour of this (including a man who has been trying for eight months to get an appointment to go on PrEP medication).
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✏️ Calling all writers! We’re looking for more freelance submissions and — Siri, cue up the Uncle Sam poster — we need YOU. Please send us your thoughtful pitches for longreads about Manchester (whether focusing on investigative work, cultural topics, historical reads, op-eds etc). You don’t need to have heaps of experience — we’re just looking for people who can string lovely sentences together, read the Mill often enough to be familiar with the sort of work we publish and have compelling and original ideas for essays about Manchester and the surrounding area — ideally from being out and about in this city, rather than from Reddit, Twitter and Google. Sounds like you? Please send pitches and any links to your previous work to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your Mill briefing
A new artisan studio has opened on Albert Square, allowing the public to watch craftspeople work on the ongoing renovation of the Town Hall. There will be demonstrations every Wednesday until the 21st of December from 12:30pm-1:30pm. The first team working on the display will be Stone Edge, a group of restoration experts specialising in stone cutting. You'll be able to watch them carve new ornate pieces to replace the Town Hall's worn stonework, and talk about the history of the stone that was used to build the original structure.
Around 1,000 border force staff will strike over the Christmas period as part of a dispute over pay. The PCS — public commercial services — union announced they will walk out for eight days starting on 23rd December. PCS members account for 95% of passport control staff, with strikes affecting airports across the country. This includes Manchester Airport, who have warned passengers to expect long waits and cancellations.
Speaking of airport staff: a baggage handler from Manchester Airport has just been paid £4,000 by GMP. After he was wrongly suspected of stealing a moped, Montell Collins was tackled to the ground by an officer and pepper sprayed. GMP paid the money after Collins brought a civil claim against them, but the force maintained that the officer did nothing wrong. Collins told the MEN: “He was on top of me and his hands around my neck. I’m screaming for people to help. I thought I was going to die.”
“As the first four boys were found guilty of conspiracy to murder, my body went into overdrive. Then came the next six, accused of conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm, including Ade and the other three boys who I knew. I could hear a wailing, and as the judge said, ‘If you can’t take the verdict quietly, you must leave’, I realised the sound was coming from me.” Roxy Legane, a social worker and activist, writes for The Guardian about a Manchester conspiracy case that has garnered international attention, and one which she witnessed unfold first hand.
Longtime Miller and star football journalist Adam Crafton is in Qatar reporting for The Athletic, and has just published an investigation that has found a Filipino migrant worker died during the World Cup group stage at the Saudi Arabia team's training ground. The Athletic reports that the worker suffered a fatal blow to the head after a fall. Sources say he wasn’t wearing a safety harness at the time. The Qatari government has launched an investigation into the incident.
And finally, the Stretford and Urmston by-election will be held next Thursday. It follows the stepping down of Kate Green, the constituency’s Labour MP who has just been announced as the Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester. The Labour council's ex leader, Andrew Western, is the current favourite. We'll be covering this in more detail next week, so feel free to email email@example.com with any tips and gossip.
By Mollie Simpson
When Divina DeCampo, 38, lived in Bangor, a small coastal city on the northwestern tip of Wales, they never worried about sexual health. There was a small sexual health clinic near the city park which was a short walk away. It was only open for four hours, two days every week, but if they needed an appointment, they could always call up and get one. Even if Divina tested positive for an STI, or needed an emergency refill of PrEP medication, they would be okay.
Divina is a professional drag queen, performer and campaigner, known for their appearance in Season One of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. Ten years ago, they moved to Manchester, where they live with their husband. Since then, they’ve spent a lot of time touring the country performing in pantomimes, theatre shows and appearing on television. Divina attends their local sexual health clinic every three months to repeat HIV tests and check for signs of infection — a necessary follow-up for those who take PrEP, a type of drug that acts as a catalyst for your body to produce antibodies so you’re less likely to contract HIV.
Testing became challenging when they moved to Manchester in 2012. For the first few years, they would line up in a queue outside their local sexual health clinic, the Hathersage Centre, run by the Northern Sexual Health Service, which runs integrated sexual health services across Manchester, Stockport, Trafford and Tameside. The first thing they noticed was the humiliation of having to queue outside next to a busy road, when everyone knew where they were. “I’m not bothered,” Divina says. “But not everybody is like me, not everybody is happy to go oh, gonorrhoea, syphilis. So if you’re not confident, are you going to honestly stand out in the street in front of hundreds of cars?”
The other thing they noticed was the level of demand for Manchester’s services. The centre used to open at 9am, but realistically, if you wanted an appointment, you would have to turn up at 7.30am to get a good place in the queue. Divina guesses around 30 people would make it into the waiting room.
The activist Maurice Nagington had noticed this situation wasn’t ideal for people who wanted to be more discreet and wouldn’t want to be seen outside a sexual health clinic, or couldn’t make it that early because of work commitments. After he made a complaint, it was moved to an online booking system. Service users had to access Northern Sexual Health Service’s website at 8.30am for an appointment the next day, select what kind of appointment they needed, run through their symptoms, if they had any, and then select a time that suited them.
But people quickly realised the digital system wasn’t solving the second problem: that there’s far much more demand than supply. When they needed a PrEP refill, they would get in the virtual queue at 8.30am, get to the following page, only to find that all appointments were gone as early as 8.32am.
According to the seven interviewees I spoke to, accessing sexual health services in Manchester is frustrating, disheartening and at times, seemingly neverending. No system is perfect, but the level of demand for appointments, coupled with the impossibility of getting through to someone on the phone, has created a massive barrier to accessing sexual health treatment.
While sexual health should be a consideration for everyone, regardless of their orientation, I’ve zeroed in on how this issue affects Manchester’s queer community given the reliance of many people within this group on PrEP, an antiviral drug which is accessed through sexual health services. Apart from Divina, who is non-binary, I’ve mainly interviewed gay men. Access to this drug feels more crucial than ever, with the government releasing data a week ago showing it is no longer on target to meet its (reasonable and achievable) goal of ending new HIV transmissions by 2030.
In response to our reporting, a spokesperson for the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust said: “The sexual health team work very hard for their patients in the areas which we serve, and they regularly receive significant amounts of positive feedback. We’re sorry to hear that these patients were unhappy with the service on this occasion, and we apologise for this. The team providing the various health services would always be happy to discuss services with their patients and would encourage them to get in touch to discuss their experiences further.”
Every morning for the last eight months, Will, 33, has been trying to get an appointment to go on PrEP medication. He has lived in Withington for six years, and uses the same Northern Sexual Health Service queuing system, and his local sexual health service is in Withington, though the demand on this service seems to be at similar levels as the Hathersage Centre in Rusholme. Will is in an open relationship with his partner, and he wants to protect them both and get on PrEP, but each time, he hasn’t managed to get through.
“It stresses me out more than anything,” Will explains. “It’s hard to put into words. It’s just pure stress. It makes me feel anxious a lot. Should I just be celibate? Can I just not have a life?"
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