The Department of Health has ended its support for the telephone helplines operated by Terrence Higgins Trust, Black Health Agency, fpa and Brook, with funding instead diverted to a centralised operation run by the private company Serco.
Terrence Higgins Trust has operated a helpline since 1984 and in recent years its THT Direct service has had a particular focus on signposting individuals to local and specialist services. Despite the loss of funding, Terrence Higgins Trust has decided to keep the helpline open, but with reduced staff and hours of operation.
The sexual health charities fpa and Brook will similarly maintain their helplines and seek alternate funding.
The I Do It Right helpline, operated by the Black Health Agency and designed to provide HIV support to African people in England, closed last week.
The Department of Health has awarded a contract to Serco to run a large number of helplines and contact centre services. Due to the limited funding available, there will be pressure on call centre staff to deal with calls quickly, often following standardised scripts.
The key service in respect to HIV will be the Sexual Health Line, operated from Glasgow. The government expects this to provide the full range of confidential, personalised advice and support for all groups of people on all sexual health issues.
The Sexual Health Line’s telephone number is 0800 567 123. It is open from 9am to 8pm (Monday to Friday) and from 11am to 4pm (Saturday and Sunday).
Serco will also operate a helpline for young people, Worth Talking About. The telephone number is 0800 28 29 30 and it is open from 2pm to 8pm (Monday to Friday) and from 2pm to 4pm (Saturday and Sunday).
The Terrence Higgins Trust service, THT Direct, will continue to be available on 0808 802 1221, with new opening hours of 10am to 8pm (Monday to Friday).
Previously THT Direct was open during the weekend and until 10pm in the week. With opening hours now concentrated during office hours, there are fears that it will make it harder for volunteers to contribute alongside paid staff.
Many volunteers have personal experience of HIV and have had a particular role in providing emotional support to callers (including newly diagnosed people and those considering taking an HIV test or post-exposure prophylaxis).
Moreover, it is not clear that the Sexual Health Line will have the capacity to offer this kind of support.