The Aids scandal that dare not speak its name
By Sir Andrew Green, Chairman, Migration Watch UK
© Copyright of Sir Andrew Green
On World Aids Day, our thoughts are supposed to turn to the 40 million people who suffer from this cruel disease around the globe - and especially to southern Africa, which is being devastated by an Aids epidemic.
Article for Daily Mail. 02 December 2004
So Tony Blair took the stand yesterday to boast that, as the next chairman of the Group of Eight major industrial countries (G8), he will focus international efforts on the crisis in Africa.
But what about the home front? In Britain, we face our own problem in the battle against Aids. It is a story of spin doctors and real doctors. And guess who's winning?
This year's report on Aids in Britain, just issued by the Health Protection Agency, is a truly astonishing document.
Although it shows that infections acquired through homosexual sex have been fairly stable (growing by only about 10 per cent in the past ten years to some 1,700 cases a year), that is only half the picture.
In absolute contrast, heterosexually-acquired HIV has taken off, growing by a factor of five in the last 10 years to reach 3,800 new cases last year. And of those infections, 90 per cent are believed to have been acquired overseas, mostly in Africa.
According to Dr Kevin Fenton, a co-author of the report, 'this increase...is largely contributed to by the migration of people from areas of the world where there is a high prevalence of HIV, such as sub-Saharan Africa.'
So there you have it: nearly half (44 per cent) of British HIV patients are not from Britain at all, but from southern Africa. Even more astonishingly, a huge proportion of these cases originated in just three countries - Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.
These three countries alone accounted for about 1,500 cases in each of the last two years. That means a quarter of all new infections in Britain originated in these countries. And the financial burden on the nation is enormous.
According to Professor Pat Troop, Chief Executive of the Health Protection Agency: 'Each HIV infection prevented can save between £500,000 and £1million in treatment and lost productivity... '
Taking the lower figure, the cost of cases just from these three countries comes to £750million in one year - enough to build three new hospitals.
So what is the Government doing about all this? Absolutely nothing. This is where the masters of spin come in handy. If your policy is somewhere between hopeless and non-existent, ignore the real doctors and reach for a spin doctor.
A couple of years ago the Government set up a Cabinet Committee to examine the problem of Aids victims migrating to Britain - in other words to kick it into the long grass. But eventually they had to decide on a plan, so ministers met last November - and decided to do nothing.
My sources in Whitehall tell me that the Health Secretary and Home Secretary pressed strongly for action. They were opposed by Paul Boateng, Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
Mr Boateng argued, bizarrely and irrelevantly, that trying to stem the influx of Aids patients through requesting health checks would weaken our economy by delaying the arrival of American bankers moving to Britain.
Other ministers, apparently, announced that this was not the sort of problem they entered
So the decision was to duck the issue and ask the spin doctors to leak these conclusions to a friendly Sunday newspaper, laden with spin, and hope that, by Monday, it would be regarded as yesterday's news. They succeeded brilliantly.
But with thousands more cases still arriving from overseas and HIV clinics in Britain coming under still greater pressure, the issue was bound to resurface.
This year's annual report by the Health Protection Agency was another danger point. But again, the spin doctors had the answer: this week, they announced an extra £300 million over three years to tackle all sexually transmitted diseases. The migration factor in Britain's Aids statistics was conveniently overlooked.
So the organisation that I chair, MigrationWatch, investigated further. We found that Malawians do not even need a visa to enter the UK, while last year more than 6,000 British visas were issued in Zimbabwe and Zambia. None of the immigrants was checked for HIV.
Yet once here, if they have Aids, it is very easy for them to obtain treatment on the NHS and very hard to remove them once their visa has expired.
Crucially, this problem could be avoided altogether if migrants were required to have a health check before arrival.
Such a policy is far from unusual. Forty-seven countries around the world require HIV tests of prospective immigrants - including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Why don't we?
Such a regime would not, of course, apply to asylum seekers. Their health is irrelevant to their claim of persecution. If they are genuine, they should be granted refuge here whatever their medical circumstances. If not, they should be removed.
But it would apply to students, applicants for work permits and those seeking longer term settlement. A positive test would not mean automatic refusal.
There would be a case, for instance, to admit the partner of a British resident, regardless of whether he or she suffered from Aids. But, for example, students with HIV should be refused as a potential danger to public health.
The pro-immigration lobby claim that tests would be falsified by rogue doctors abroad who would provide a negative result for a large fee.
But this seems not to be a problem for other countries. They have a list of accredited doctors to carry out the tests. If one is falsified the doctor is struck from the list.
It is also claimed that such tests would stigmatise those found HIV positive. Perhaps, but they would at least identify the disease and enable the sufferer to seek treatment in their home country earlier than they might otherwise have done.
And here is another absurdity. Britain's annual £750 million cost of treating just one year's HIV intake from only three countries would pay for the treatment of literally millions of sufferers in Africa. It could certainly provide an enormous boost to research.
One of Blair's ministers has just been in Brussels urging the European Union to increase the £15million - yes £15million - that they are providing for Aids vaccine research.
Imagine how many more lives could be saved if Britain was to invest the money it currently spends on treating migrants with Aids on finding a vaccine instead.
But, of course, such a policy would mean acknowledging that we face a problem in the first place. So instead the Government is desperately trying to distract attention from it.
It seems that it does not have the courage to face down knee-jerk accusations of racism by publicly acknowledging that African immigrants account for such a large proportion of British Aids cases.
In failing to do so, it is not only putting political correctness before public health but placing a massive burden on the NHS.
This is, quite simply, outrageous. The Government has a clear duty to protect our health. It is not fulfilling it.
Sir Andrew Green is a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria.
© Copyright of Sir Andrew Green
The Daily Mail, London, 02 December, 2004