Welsh Assembly Members call for increased action on hepatitis C

The Welsh Assembly yesterday held a debate on hepatitis C, in which a cross-party group of Assembly Members highlighted the need for increased action to ensure Wales achieves its target of eliminating hepatitis C by 2030 at the latest.

The subject of the debate was a report from the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee into progress towards achieving elimination in Wales, which followed an inquiry earlier in the year, which The Hepatitis C Trust provided oral and written evidence to.  

Helen Mary Jones (Plaid Cymru) opened the debate on behalf of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, noting concern among those who contributed to the inquiry at Wales' progress towards meeting the 2030 elimination goal. Jones highlighted the four recommendations made by the Committee, calling for the Welsh Government to produce a national elimination strategy, back targeted awareness campaigns, write to Local Health Boards emphasising that treatment targets must be considered as minimum targets, and provide additional investment to improve hepatitis C testing in Welsh prisons. She added that the Committee is "somewhat disappointed that the Welsh Government has only chosen to fully accept one of these recommendations" (to write to Local Health Boards).

Angela Burns (Conservative) called for Wales to aim for elimination before 2030 and for the Welsh Government to go forward with a targeted awareness-raising campaign, noting that experts and the Committee were united in calling for such a campaign. Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid Cymru) highlighted that around half of those living with hepatitis C in Wales remain undiagnosed and the importance of reaching this group through awareness campaigns and testing in GP surgeries. Caroline Jones (Brexit Party) called for a "comprehensive national elimination strategy, backed by hard targets and the money to deliver it", saying "nothing else will do". 

Responding to the debate, Health Minister Vaughan Gething said that hepatitis C testing rates in substance misuse services have increased by over 50 per cent compared to the same period in 2018 following the introduction of a Key Performance Indicator and stated that "health boards will be sent a formal minimum treatment target as part of the NHS delivery framework for next year, 2020-21". 

The Health Minister also committed to providing annual updates, guidance and instruction to health boards around hepatitis C. 

Speaking following the publication of the Welsh Government's response to the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee's report, The Hepatitis C Trust's Chief Executive Rachel Halford said: "Whilst we welcome the Welsh Government making clear to Local Health Boards the need to exceed hepatitis C treatment targets, we are disappointed that they have not fully accepted the Committee’s other recommendations. These recommendations were based on evidence we and other organisations and individuals provided to the inquiry, and there was near-unanimity on the measures needed to achieve elimination.

“The Welsh Government response refers to a strategy as an ‘administrative burden’ and says that ‘it is known what is required to successfully eliminate hepatitis C: increased testing and treatment in the community’. This simplistic assessment ignores the fact that recent modelling work shows that Wales is not currently on track to achieve elimination by 2030 on current treatment rates, which is precisely why we believe an elimination strategy is needed. A strategy would set measurable targets, allocate responsibility and establish mechanisms for monitoring progress towards elimination.

“With NHS England having agreed an elimination deal with the ambition of achieving elimination by 2025, and the Scottish Government recently setting a target to achieve elimination by 2024, there is a very real danger of Wales being left behind in the race to achieve hepatitis C elimination without increased action.”