Increasing pressure on primary care trusts (PCTs) to recover from budget deficits is hitting sexual health services, a new report has revealed.
A survey for the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) shows nearly two-thirds of PCTs are diverting some or all of the funding intended for sexual health services to other areas and calls on the government to ring-fence funding.
The findings have been welcomed by the Conservatives who have backed the call for ring-fencing.
THT head of policy Lisa King said: "Ring-fencing is not politically popular, but it would seem to be the only way to ensure money for sexual health services is not diverted elsewhere."
She warned: "We have the worst sexual health in western Europe, and it's not going to improve unless we can make national policy a local reality."
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley commented: "The government has failed to prioritise sexual health.
"This is compounded by record NHS deficits that have debilitated sexual health services."
He added: "Public health budgets need to be ring-fenced - as the chief medical officer has advocated - to prevent short-term financial pressures undermining long-term public health strategies, and connect national aspirations with local action."
Ring-fencing the funding was also backed by the NHS Confederation and chief executive Gill Morgan said "it is important to ensure that money earmarked for health improvement, including sexual health services, is not diverted elsewhere".
But she added: "PCTs have a wide range of priorities to address - particularly the
need to achieve financial balance which the government has made clear is the current top priority.
"So it is perhaps understandable that at this point in time funding for sexual health services is under pressure."
The report also expresses concerns about the increasing use of non-specialist staff to plan sexual health services.
It also reveals 18 per cent of clinicians admit they "often" turn people away without treatment, although this is down from nearly 25 per cent in 2005.
The government has defended its record on sexual health and a spokesman from the Department of Health insisted: "Improving sexual health in England is a priority for all areas of the NHS."
But he admitted that while "significant progress" has been made "there is still much to do".
He said 65 per cent of patients are now seen within 48 hours up from 38 per cent in 2004 and new national screening programme for chlamydia will be rolled out this year.